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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
A Moon for the Misbegotten
By Elyse Sommer
For years after it was written Moon. . . was considered more of a postscript to one of his four Pulitzer Prize winners, Long Day's Journey Into Night, rather than a masterpiece in its own right.
Then, in 1973, Colleen Dewhurst and Jason Robards exploded the emotional dynamite beneath its Irish blarney and the tender but doomed love of James Tyrone and his tenant farmer Phil Hogan's daughter Josie. Their performances dug into the facades these desperate people presented to the world — he as a cynical carouser, she as the town tramp. That Moon was a "resurrection" in more ways than one: Jason Robards undertook the role after recovering from a near fatal accident and its director José Quintero had just given up drinking.
I was lucky enough to see that game changing 1973 production, but if you're too young to have attended, the film version is still available. While productions since then have featured notable casts (notably Kevin Spacey and Eve Best and Cherry Jones and Gabriel Byrne), it's taken not only a stellar cast but imaginative staging to still make the story of these misbegotten lovers a stimulating experience worth spending close to three hours with, even for veterans of three productions like this writer.
The way director Gorden Edelstein, who is himself no stranger to the play, achieved this kind of freshness with the current Williamstown production was to persuade 6-time Tony Award Winner Audra McDonald to play Josie . With her father and brother also played by African-Americans (Howard W. Overshown and Glynn Turman) McDonald was free to play the role with a true-to-herself natural ease. No need to make the audience buy into her Irishness. And with her husband Will Swenson cast as James Tyrone, there was the added appeal of the couple being on stage together for the first time since they met while appearing in a revival of 110 In the Shade.
While this production's "re-imagined" billing adds a racial element to the Tyrone/Hogan - rich/poor class divide the time frame, setting and relationships are unchanged. And it works beautifully. If O'Neill could leave his corner of heaven occupied by playwrights ' long enough to visit Williamstown, he might be initially shocked to see a Josie so different from the one he envisioned. But I have no doubt that the wonderful McDonald and this production generally would win him over.
There's no question that McDonald is the star attraction and dominates the stage, but under Edelstein direction, the rest of the cast also shines. The fact that McDonald and Swenson are married intensifies the chemistry between the loving but doomed Josie and Jim. Swenson is probably the sexiest Jim I've seen, but he brings just enough bourbon fuelled weariness to the role. And he fully matches McDonald's breathtaking intensity in the lengthy monologue when, after the painfully aborted sex scene in Josie's bedroom, he unburdens himself of his guilt and grief about bedding a prostitute on the same train carrying his mother's coffin.
Overshown captures the genuine fatherly concerns as well as the clownish exterior of Mike Hogan and Aaron Costa Ganis adds another touch of humor to the inevitably doomed love story. However, I wouldn't have minded if the clever director had found a way to tighten all the farcical business of the first act. That said, the way he's conflated the four acts into two parts, with pauses between acts richly enhanced by John Gramada's incidental music. The overall effect is that of the movements of a symphony.
Lee Savage has expertly recreated Ming Cho Lee original painterly design of the interior and slanted exterior Hogan farm house. The rocks and boulders, graded walkways, self-pumping water well and a single leafless tree define the hardscrabble atmosphere. But lighting designer Jennifer Tipton, besides subtly lighting the intense scene in Josie's room has provided a brilliant moon for Josie and Jim's own sexless but emotionally sizzling long day's journey into the night on the steps in back of the house. Of course, the light that shines brightest here is the one generated by Ms. McDonald and Mr. Swenson.
A note about the biographical aspects of the play. O'Neill wrote it as a sort of fictional mass for his brother James, an alcoholic actor, , and was forged from an episode in the first act of Long Day's Journey Into Night. It was, in fact, forged from an episode in the first act of that play. For more about Eugene O'Neill and links to other plays we've reviewed, see our O'Neill backgrounder on Eugene O'Neill and links to reviews of his plays backgrounder.