“A Moon for the Misbegotten”

RECOMMENDED

Where: Writers Theatre, Nichols Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe
When: through March 18
Tickets: $35-$80
Phone: 847-242-6000

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

Eugene O’Neill is one of the greatest American playwrights, but the truth is that many of his plays, which were written between the 1920s and ’40s, are so intensely melodramatic and humorless that they are virtually impossible to stage convincingly nowadays. So hats off to Writers Theatre, resident director William Brown, and an exceptional cast for bringing a fresh, humanizing perspective to “A Moon for the Misbegotten,” first produced in 1947.

A sequel of sorts to “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” “Moon” is set in 1923 and focuses on the relationship between James Tyrone, Jr., an alcoholic actor modeled on the playwright’s older brother, Jamie, and the Hogan family, tenant farmers on his Connecticut property. At its core is the doomed love between Tyrone and Josie, who care for each other deeply but are emotionally out of synch.

Brown’s first innovation is to cast the Hogans as African American rather than lower-class Irish, and it works extremely well thanks to the prodigious talent and rapport between A.C. Smith and Bethany Thomas. Smith plays Phil Hogan, a drunken bully of a father so mean and domineering that he’s driven his three sons off the farm; we see the last one, Mike (Cage Sebastian Pierre), rebellious yet terrified, run away in the opening scene. This leaves only Phil’s daughter, Josie, a big, bossy woman embodied in every way by Thomas. A tough talker proud of her purported promiscuity, she can match Phil insult for insult, blow for blow.

Beyond being well cast, Smith and Thomas capture the complicated father-daughter dynamic built on a profound, if unspoken, understanding underlying all the surface arguments. One of the most engaging scenes is when they team up to rebuke and intimidate snooty upper-class neighbor T. Stedman Harder (Eric Parks), who comes to complain about them letting their pigs in his ice pond.

More than that, though, Smith’s performance clarifies the kind-hearted secret reasons behind Phil’s seemingly selfish schemes. In the past, Tyrone had promised that once he inherited the farm, he would let Phil buy it on time, but now that he has inherited, there are rumors that Harder wants to buy it and that Tyrone is planning to sell to him. Or so Phil tells Josie to enlist her help in a multi-pronged plot to ensnare Tyrone into marrying her in order to keep the farm.

Josie can’t believe Tyrone would betray his promise to them and at first refuses, but Phil’s lies convince her to try to seduce Tyrone. The question is whether the devious Phil is motivated by greed and mistrust of his landlord or by a desire for Josie to find happiness with the man she loves and a belief that this is her last chance. Smith, in a moment of frankness, affirms the latter.

Alas, the long central scene between Josie and Tyrone proves that the time for them to get together has long passed or never existed. Casting the short, slim Jim DeVita as Tyrone makes the distance between him and Thomas’ Josie physically palpable, and he is convincing as a guilt-ridden, self-loathing man who is almost as charming as he is tortured. In the course of a moonlit night (though we don’t see a moon), they cover lots of territory from affectionate teasing to confrontations and revelations.

If there doesn’t seem to be enough of a connection between them, I think that’s deliberate. They want totally different things. She longs for a lover who will accept her as she is. He wants her to be an earth mother-confessor who will forgive him and absolve him of his sins. In the end, she sacrifices her needs and desires to satisfy his. This can be interpreted as the greatest act of love, as it probably would have been in O’Neill’s time, or as a crushing tragedy crossed with a male-chauvinist fantasy, as it might be by a modern feminist.

I lean towards the latter view and confess I’ve always found “A Moon for the Misbegotten” both beautiful and frustrating with its moments of soaring lyricism and insight amid long stretches of tedious machinations and conversations. Brown and his ensemble make the best of it for the most part, and the designers—rundown, rocky farm set by Todd Rosenthal, lighting by Jesse Klug, costumes by Rachel Anne Healy—create a world anyone would find challenging to live in.