There’s no present or future — only the past, happening over and over again — now.” The past, with its entourage of guilt and regret, is Eugene O’Neill’s great subject. It is also the challenge of reviving a classic, especially one with a history of luminous productions. Gary Griffin and his cast more than meet this challenge in a moving, low-key “A Moon for the Misbegotten,” O’Neill’s last and arguably best play.
O’Neill took a plot so familiar it sounds like a joke — Broadway dandy meets farmer’s daughter — and transformed it into a meditation on disappointment.
Jim Tyrone (Andrew McCarthy), awash in self-loathing, medicates his existential “heebie-jeebies” with whiskey and whores. Earth mother Josie (Kathleen McNenny), a big, proud, rough woman, defends herself against loneliness with manufactured gossip that she is the town slut. Her cunning, brutal father, Phil Hogan (Jack Willis), who has driven his three sons away from their hardscrabble farm, masks his tenderness for his daughter with tough talk.
In a plot full of scheming — for love, for money, for revenge — there is always “a trick behind the trick”; we think we’re in on the plans, only to be surprised by yet another ploy. What starts as farce shades into tragedy; powerful revelations and heart-wrenching last chances fill a moonlit second-act duet.
The three characters, filled with complex self-contradictions, require actors who can convey their wounded humanity with subtlety and charm. Phil Hogan, often treated as a minor character, is major here, and Willis is a shrewd, apelike and violent Phil; the actor can play a man play-acting so convincingly that we’re never quite sure what we’re watching.
Jim tells Josie they “belong to the same club. We can kid the world, but we can’t fool ourselves.” And so they kid us, until we see through the bluff. Seeing into the truth of things is not only the plot and the structure of the play, it describes the experience of watching it. And this requires acting within acting.
McNenny amply fills the part of Josie, one of American dramatic literature’s great female roles, despite her modest size. She is both lovely and plain, managing to show us the crucial girlish sweetness under the defensive swagger and grubbiness.
McCarthy crafts a Jim Tyrone who is, at first, so light on his feet he seems to dance while his fingers flicker in nervous, graceful gestures. Then his flair crumbles to ashes and despair.
Visually, the production is flawed. The puzzling set is especially surprising, since the McCarter is known for spectacular set designs. But the Hogan shanty is inappropriately huge, with little to suggest poverty or the ramshackle quality of their lives. Inexplicably, people sometimes walk through the invisible front wall, sometimes go around and use the door. The immense upstage wall is unreadable: Is it bleached-out tree bark? A gigantic wrinkled sheet?
And, in a play about moonlight, the lighting seems understated and untheatrical. Strict naturalism undermines the passion, and for O’Neill, passion is always the point.