20 January 2006: O’Neill, A Moon for the Misbegotten

Hartford Stage. The New Haven Long Wharf Theatre production, directed by Gordon Edelstein. Scenic design: Ming Cho Lee. Josie: Alysia Bresnahan. James Tyrone Jr.: James Colby. Phil Hagan, her father: Bill Raymond. Stage run 5 January – 5 February 2006.

I gave up my Hartford Stage subscription at the end of last season: too many musicals and one-person shows. Times are tough for regional theaters, but that doesn’t mean I have to go to see things I don’t want to see, out of loyalty. (The same thing has happened in the case of the Huntington Theatre in Boston.) But I was glad to go back to see this fine production of O’Neill’s splendid last play.

Bresnahan and Colby have been a familiar duo; Edelstein reportedly calls them “the Lunts.” I saw them in Streetcar and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, both at Hart­ford Stage, as I recall. Bresnahan is perfectly cast as the sinful woman with heart (or a heart of gold), a woman whose sexuality is felt so instinctively real and, finally, not to be apologized for; Colby, for his part, is at home in the sensual, self-indulgent man of the world roles. Taken over by O’Neill, we see some rein­car­nations of earlier characters — Anna Christie, Adam Brandt, others — rough, unrescuable characters who know themselves as that already or come to confront the fact in the course of the play.

O’Neill’s restless, unhappy lifetime of dramaturgical experimentation, view­ed in retrospect through the late double prisms of Long Day’s Journey and Moon, appear, like an overlong series of growing pains, from which he at last emerged whole and sound, a functional adult dramatist. The dialogue is really wonderful, for long stretches, here; we can stop complaining about the “tin ear” all too evid­ent in Emperor Jones, Mourning Becomes Electra, and Desire Under the Elms. Of course, Irish accents, in Josie and Phil, are much in evidence; but it is a lingo O’Neill knew much better than the African-American (as we now choose to call it), and the clichéed “By Jingo” faux-Swedish of the earlier one-act plays. This is mature, confident, and utterly authentic work. He knew it, in his race against time to finish before crippling disease finally did him in; much later, so do we.

All the actors, including those who only appear briefly in the first act, are well up to the challenge. The brother, Mike Hogan, departing forever from an oppressive father, is easy enough; more difficult is the role of the wealthy owner of the ice pond invaded by Hogan’s pigs, T. Stedman Harder, played by Wynn Harmon. O’Neill’s class prejudices are blatantly on show here, and the interlude in which Josie and Phil gang up on Harmon and finally dunk him in the water trough, observed by James, a sort of unindicted co-conspirator observing the high jinks from Josie’s bedroom porch, are quite funny but seemed finally to be part of some other play. Of course, the real function of the scene is to bond Josie and Phil in a closer link, and to make them and James into a trio separated out from the rest of humanity as special and worth our sustained attention. In fact, this is what O’Neill succeeds in doing for his central characters in every one of his successful plays — witness the choric presence of the townspeople, on the periphery of the main characters, in Mourning Becomes Electra (oh, I said that wasn’t a success, didn’t I? See my review a few years back of the ill-conceived National Theatre production of the play in the companion volume to the present book); witness the same effect, through much more economical means, with the servant Kathleen in Long Day’s Journey, whose uncomprehending, blithe ordinariness serves to set off the Tyrone family in a dramatic world apart.

And the three are, indeed, worth our sustained attention. The water trough farce is far behind us when, in Act II, Josie sends her father away to the tavern to give her the time and space to win James as her lover and, perhaps, her husband. Of course, there is a plot connection: Josie feels pressured to do this as a devious device to save the farm from being sold to Harder, who has foolishly offered James $10,000 for it. Phil is worried that James will welch on his promise to sell the farm to them. It is a false alarm; at the end of the play, James reassures Josie that his promise is golden. Meanwhile, however, we see the most astonishing baring of heart and soul that occurs in any O’Neill play except for Long Day’s Journey. And here, distinct from the soul-searing fatalism of that play, there is a heart-warming resolution in which each character admits, in a wistful but honest way, that destiny is destiny (the word is not used, but the idea is there, a core value in O’Neill’s plays, as in his life and beliefs) and that the best and only recourse is to be honest about themselves, accept what cannot be changed or rectified about them, and let things be.

The arc of O’Neill’s’s dramaturgy here is as sure and overarching and func­tion­al as it has ever been. Long ago, in one of the best books on O’Neill’s craft, Timo Tiusanen the Finnish director explained that O’Neill’s plays were conceived and articulated in scenic units, scenic images, which must be grasped by actors and directors as organic wholes. He who attempts to shorten or otherwise tamper with O’Neill’s plays does so at his peril. Leave O’Neill’s long periods intact, play them with accomplished actors who have a solid grasp of their characters, and audien­ces will knowingly and happily sit, watch, and listen. That happened last night (I write, as so often, the next day after the performance), over the space of two-and-three-quarters hours.

The set, by Ming Cho Lee, was quite wonderful and totally appropriate to the action. A rock-strewn slope, culminating upstage, with a wire fence and a panor­am­ic cloud in the sky, framed a ramshackle farmhouse in the upper left quadrant of the stage, giving us a two-steps-up entrance into the house up right center and another set of steps, five in all, leading up left center to Josie’s part of the house, a perfect place for the long, intimate scene between James and Josie that occupies most of Act II. The house itself was painted a uniformly light grey, somehow giv­ing simultaneously the appearance of paint and extreme weathering to the natur­al wood. But the color was more uniform than variegated weathering could have produced, lending the house a quasi-abstract air that completely saved it from being tawdry and naturalistic.

For all his class prejudices, O’Neill had not the faintest interest in questions of society or social justice. Zola and his naturalistic peers and heirs would not have recognized this place as an “environment” that exerted a fatal influence on its inhabitants. If O’Neill has a foot in that old, oppressive territory, it is in a sort of spiritual way: his characters are not made for change or, heaven knows, improve­ment or rescue; they are there to be given the scope to realize and demonstrate who they inexorably are. The process is one of enlightenment, not reclamation or reformation. This is the idea, the phenomenon, at the center of O’Neill’s tragic vision. In the hands of the right actors and other theatre artists, the result falls little short of exultation.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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