Review: ‘A Moon for the Misbegotten’

O'Neill's tragicomic romance "A Moon for the Misbegotten" provides a fine sendoff for Marco Barricelli, who lamentably leaves ACT's "core acting company" with this production. It also provides a revelatory vehicle for Robin Weigert. The two thesps' long quasi-courtship avoids nearly all the pitfalls of this lyrically tender but perilously repetitive text.

Judiciously cut and exquisitely played, O’Neill’s tragicomic romance “A Moon for the Misbegotten” provides a fine sendoff for Marco Barricelli, who lamentably leaves ACT’s “core acting company” with this production, reducing its number to just three, after several seasons as a major asset. It also provides a revelatory vehicle for Robin Weigert, Calamity Jane in HBO skein “Deadwood,” here playing another very good woman with a very foul mouth. In Laird Williamson’s note-perfect production, the two thesps’ long quasi-courtship avoids nearly all the pitfalls of this lyrically tender but perilously repetitive text.

As Josie Hogan, Weigert is seen chasing cityward a younger sib (Andy Butterfield) who, like another brother before him, is too pious and petrified to survive life on their falling-down Connecticut tenant farm under the sucker-punching rule of dad Phil (Raye Birk). Indeed, Josie is “the only one” who can stand up to pa — let alone make him cringe, from the force of her own imposing temper.

Fact is, they’re two peas in a pod, each flaunting bad language and worse behavior for the other’s amusement — his mostly whisky-fueled hell-raising, her seeming seduction of half the county’s men. Everyone else can go to hell, especially swells like the oil-millionaire neighbor (David Arrow) they delight in horrifying with pranks and hillbilly antics.

They get away with these offenses largely because the “rich landlord” whose supposed tyranny they deign to suffer is James Tyrone Jr. (Barricelli), a writer who regularly escapes the tinsel and “pretty little tarts” of Broadway to play co-conspirator with these local yokels.

Wholly given up to hooch since his mother’s passing a year before, Jim has a ready drinking partner here in rascally Phil. He’s also got something more in the barefoot, plain Josie, whose “rough” talk of past conquests he irritably dismisses as a “bluff.” Typical of his messed-up, defeatist actions these days, he insists the woman everyone else considers a whore (even dad calls her “ya great slut ya”) be a secret Madonna.

After intermission (Williamson compresses the original four acts into two), their planned date to “spoon in the moonlight” finally takes place, with Jim showing up drastically late, soused, pitiful and punchy from the “hebejebes.” His sometimes barely conscious ramblings soon reveal it’s not romantic or even carnal love Jim seeks — instead, it’s surrogate forgiveness and coddling for a disconsolate, abandoned mama’s boy. It’s Josie’s fate to serve not as bride but as “a virgin who bears a dead child in the night.”

Perhaps no amount of trimming can keep this long final scene from growing somewhat repetitious in its drunken self-recrimination, but the superb leading performances make it riveting all the same. His Romanesque profile well-suited to the role of a great Victorian ham actor’s equally stage-besotted son, Barricelli subtly hits all the right notes: Jim’s easy laughter, generosity and half-stifled romantic impulses shade seamlessly into belligerent misogyny, self-loathing and maudlin childishness. The drunk act, which can really challenge an actor’s ability to avoid wearisome monotony over three hours, instead becomes just the opposite — here, James Jr.’s increasing inebriation brings new colors to his already familiar litany of complaints.

At once doughy spinster, sensual earth-goddess and angelic mommy-cum-nursemaid, Josie is perhaps a character only a male alcoholic writer could (or would want to) create. But Weigert breathes such rich life into her that she just about runs away with the entire evening. Her body language has a defiant, tomboy hardness, her Irish lilt a gorgeous musicality without caricature. Her joyfully comic line readings (well-matched by Birk’s pa, though he looks a tad young for the part) are tossed off as astutely as the bittersweet heart she lends Josie elsewhere, which is the more poignant for understatement. It’s a singularly beautiful performance.

Robert Mark Morgan’s unit set — resembling a tumbleweed gathering of farmhouse and furniture bits — is striking if perhaps more prairie than New England. Don Darnutzer’s lighting charts the requisite lyrical road from hot summer daylight to full-moonlight to sobered, rosy dawn. Snatches of traditional Irish music mark the rare transition in a production whose expert pacing and attention to detail leaves scarcely an idle moment.

A Moon for the Misbegotten

Geary Theater, San Francisco; 1,035 seats; $68 top

Production

An American Conservatory Theater production of a play in two acts by Eugene O'Neill. Directed by Laird Williamson.

Creative

Set, Robert Mark Morgan; costumes, Sandra Woodall; lighting, Don Darnutzer; sound, Garth Hemphill; dramaturg, Paul Walsh; production stage manager, Elisa Guthertz. Opened, reviewed May 4, 2005. Running time: 2 HOURS, 45 MIN.

Cast

Josie Hogan - Robin Weigert Mike Hogan - Andy Butterfield Phil Hogan - Raye Birk James Tyrone Jr. - Marco Barricelli T. Stedman Harder - David Arrow
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