It took decades, and several ill-received productions, for Eugene O’Neill’s “A Moon for the Misbegotten” to be recognized as one of his major works. The reasons are multiple, of course, but most prominent among them remains the simple fact that this particular work may be among the most difficult of his canon — its length, its tonal shifts, its highly layered sub-text — to pull off successfully.
In bursts, this Writers Theatre production, directed by William Brown, is up to the challenge. It presents a set of fine performances and flashes of genuine dramatic beauty. But the production also possesses a certain frenetic energy that keeps it from settling in comfortably for long stretches in order to let the characters and dialogue do the necessary digging into internal darkness, which then makes it more difficult still to emerge from that darkness into something like forgiveness or transcendence.
‘A MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN’ Recommended When: Through March 18 Where: Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe Tickets: $35 – $80 Info: writerstheatre.org Run time: 3 hours and 10 minutes, with two intermissions
The play is set in 1923 on a dilapidated, rocky Connecticut farm owned by Phil Hogan (A.C. Smith), a notoriously difficult, rogue-ish old drunk who has treated his three sons so badly that the last of them, Mike (Cage Sebastian Pierre), runs off in the opening scene. That leaves the widower Phil with the only child he likes, his saucy, no-nonsense, reputedly promiscuous daughter Josie (Bethany Thomas).
Brown has cast the Hogans untraditionally, as an African-American family rather than an Irish one, and his choice of actors is ideal. Thomas — an exciting performer best known for her musical roles (most recently Porchlight’s “Marry Me a Little”) certainly matches O’Neill’s description of Josie — is better than any casting I’ve seen before.
Concerned that their landlord Jim Tyrone (Jim DeVita) plans to sell the farm despite a promise not to, Phil and Josie hatch a scheme, really a series of schemes that start and stop and start again, for Josie to get the alcoholic Jim drunk — the easy part — then coax him, honestly or not, into marrying her.
The early scenes are comic, and the production overall is most successful here. Just as the characters are ideal companions, Smith and Thomas are a great match for each other, capturing the bluster and caring in equal measure. Their bickering contains both anger and appreciation, and they form a formidable team when they gang up to intimidate their haughty, wealthy neighbor T. Stedman Harder (Eric Parks, capturing the air of over-the-top privilege).
But the core of this play lies in the scene, spanning the second and third acts, between Josie and Jim. While ostensibly about a scheme, it’s apparent there is genuine feeling, and a deep mutual understanding, between the two, and the scene represents for both a last chance at love.
Jim Tyrone (known as Jamie in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” the prequel to this story, set a decade earlier) is a stand-in for Eugene O’Neill’s older brother. And Jim DeVita, a phenomenal Wisconsin-based actor, looks an awful lot like the playwright himself, and ably embodies a man who is both charming and thoroughly broken. Over the course of the scene, he compliments Josie, then treats her terribly, then descends into drunken despair, confessing in particular his sins committed in the time surrounding his mother’s death.Josie, meanwhile, comes to realize that Jim is beyond hope, but only after having her own deep insecurities, and the lies built on them, exposed.
It’s all there, but it’s also all a bit jittery. When moments get uncomfortable, when the truth gets close, Brown seemingly permits the actors let the characters off easy, moving away when they need to face each other and themselves. It’s not just the moon that’s missing (an awfully odd design choice), but the slow burn, the subtle nuances, the layered depth of two characters lying to themselves and each other — and knowing the other knows they’re lying — that can make this play devastatingly powerful.
Steven Oxman is a Chicago-based freelance writer.