New Moon

Why see another production of this O'Neill classic? Again, it's for the acting.

by Cary M. Mazer

A Moon for the Misbegotten

Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, Labuda Center for the Performing Arts, Center Valley, PA, (610) 282-WILL

In Eugene O'Neill's last completed play, A Moon for the Misbegotten, the turgid philosophy of some of his earlier plays falls away, as do the playwright's self-conscious attempts to write Tragedy with a capital T. Even O'Neill's famously clotted and lead-footed language gives way to relatively plain speech, with some passages of glorious, effortless, moon-soaked poetry. For all of the scheming and all the "scheming behind the scheming'' that bring the characters together, there's not much plot. It all boils down to two figures sitting in the moonlight on the wooden steps of a shabby Connecticut farmhouse, one a coarse "overgrown cow,'' the town virgin masquerading as the town slut, the other an alcoholic prematurely middle-aged guilt-ridden Broadway Joe with one foot in the grave.

The play's principal appeal, then, is the opportunity it affords theatergoers to get a glimpse into the soul of one of the most haunted and misbegotten of O'Neill's many booze-soaked, haunted and misbegotten characters, and into the heart of the earth-mother virgin/whore against whose breast he finds a rare moment of peace and forgiveness. Or, to put it another way, the play provides an opportunity for actors to peel open their psyches and inhabit these extraordinary suffering people.

That Gerard J. Schubert's production at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival follows so closely on the heels of Harriet Power's production of the play for Venture Theatre two months ago is, then, hardly a disadvantage. For in each case we get to watch excellent actors at work. If you missed the play at Venture, be sure not to miss this one; and if you saw that one, why not subject yourself to the play's pains and beauties again - not to compare; just to experience it all over again through the prism of different actors' souls.

And so I will resist the temptation to compare Grace Gonglewski's performance as Josie Hogan to Janis Dardaris' at Venture, or Greg Wood's James Tyrone to Charles Roney's. Like Dardaris (and like Colleen Dewhurst in the deservedly famous 1973 Broadway revival of the play), Gonglewski simply cannot physically embody O'Neill's impossible stage directions for Josie Hogan - "so oversize for a woman that she is almost a freak.'' Gonglewski's Josie is confident and completely at ease in her coarseness, and is completely devil-take-the-hindmost about her reputation as the town's easy lay. But for all her coarseness and swagger, and for all her potato-peeling and corn-husking, she is, right from the start, surprisingly delicate and fine-boned, despite her best swaggering efforts to the contrary. And so it comes as no surprise that her most magical moments come in her long drunken scene with Tyrone, when she finally lets down her guard and, meltingly, confesses her love in the moonlight.

And Wood is fabulous as Tyrone, capturing both the character's insouciant "Broadway blather'' and his guilt-wracked "heebie-jeebies''; and his big drunken confessional narrative is magnificent. If there is one thing that Wood can't capture, it is the character's literal morbidity, Josie's sense, and ours, that Tyrone is virtually dead already, "a dead man walking slowly behind his own coffin.'' Wood, as an actor, is too vital, too alive for that. And so we see, in the confessional scene, the fires of Tyrone's private hell aflame; but he simply cannot show us, afterwards, that his fire has burned out, leaving nothing but ashes.

This shifts the focus of the play in its final moments. O'Neill wrote this biographical play to afford his alcoholic older brother, James O'Neill, Jr., a fictional moment of confessional and absolution that he no doubt never had in life. The character sleeps through the night cradled between the legs of a forgiving mother figure, the "virgin who bears a dead child in the night''; Tyrone receives his dead mother's blessing against the breast of a whore-like madonna. But so alive is Wood's Tyrone when he awakes, and so ravishingly alive is the love for him of Gonglewski's Josie, that their final parting becomes more a scene about their love than it is a living eulogy for the already-dead Tyrone. Still, the scene is so tender and so alive that it's hard to quarrel with it.

As in Power's production at Venture, Schubert adds some Tennessee Williams-like fantasy-train sound effects to accompany Tyrone's heebie-jeebie flashbacks. The hardscrabble setting is by Bob Phillips, and the (perhaps too) beautiful lighting is by Lisa L. Zinni. H. Michael Walls plays the crooked-as-a-corkscrew Phil Hogan with as much aplomb but less authentic Irishness than Michael Toner did at Venture.