A Moon for The Misbegotten

by Eugene O'Neill
Directed by Rick Lombardo
At the New Repertory Theatre
Newton, MA Through October 26th

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

Eugene O'Neill's "A Moon for The Misbegotten" is a kind of coda to the play that is widely recognized as the American drama that comes closest to being a classic tragedy, his "Long Day's Journey Into Night". Once again O'Neill is working with material from his own family, the emotional constellation that shaped his artistic as well as his personal destiny. His is a poetry-haunted family with a famous actor for a father, a prosperous man stingy with his money and his love, warped by the deprivations of his own Irish childhood; and with the peculiar sorts of flaws and guilt and pain that are associated with Irishness. The O'Neill family becomes the plays' Tyrone family, and their translation of the Old World's matters of sin and salvation into America's measure of success and failure comes to stand for all the stumbling we do as we grope our way though modern territory where the old maps can't be trusted.

James Tyrone Junior, who is patterned after O'Neill's alcoholic older brother, is an actor, although not a famous one like his father before him. James Jr. has bounced back and forth between Broadway and Hollywood, playing bit parts and partying hard. Now the senior Tyrones are both dead, and Jim is back home in rural Connecticut, waiting for the estate to be out of probate so that he can use the old man's money to finance his Runyonesque man-about-town lifestyle. Jim Tyrone is only forty, but he is at the end of his tether: he sees that once the money is in his pocket he will have nothing to hold him back from drinking himself to death.

John FitzGibbon , who plays Tyrone, is well past forty, and a bit shy of the "boyish charm" that O'Neill describes as peeking through the character's layers of dissipation and cynicism. What FitzGibbon, who has decades of stage and TV work to draw on, offers to the role instead is a bone-deep knowledge of the Tyrone world. He wears Jaime's 1920's suit with exactly the air of a man who has learned to act like a gent, and to measure himself by impossible standards. The actor strikes a match with shaking hands, rubs his hung-over aching forehead, jokes and tells stories and recites poetry with just the right mixture of coarseness and courtliness, all the weight of Tyrone's experience behind him. The details of FitzGibbon's performance would slip seamlessly into a documentary of the era, and he is strongest where he most needs to be strong: re-creating James Tyrone Junior's struggle with his inner demons.

But for much of the long play James Tyrone is off stage, and we know him only through what his family's tenants the Hogans, who live on a run-down farm that is part of the Tyrone inheritance,-- and who are always behind on their rent-- say about him.

The Hogans are shanty Irish of the worst kind, not an ounce of respectability in them. Phil Hogan ( Ed Peed ) is a familiar figure on the Irish and American stage, a father cut from the same cloth as the father in "The Playboy of the Western World" and the murder-worthy Dads in this season's hit, Martin McDonagh's "Leenane Trilogy". Dad is an abusive alcoholic brute who uses insult, lies, bluff, bluster, threat and ultimately violence to oppress anyone he can -- which, given his lack of money and social clout, usually means the weaker members of his own family. A great deal of the play is taken up with the combative Hogans going at it hammer and tongs, either against each other or united in fierce scorn against the cowards and hypocrites and snobs who have the temerity to look down on them.

Father and daughter Josephine ( Anne-Marie Cusson ) enjoy their brawling, it passes the time -- such a lot of time! -- and the audience is expected to enjoy it, too; either for the "comic Irish" surface or for the glimpses of baffled affection and self-loathing beneath that surface. But by now, some 70 years after the events of the play and 40 years after its premiere, some of the Hogans' "Irish shenanigans" are over-familiar. New Rep director Rick Lombardo has Cusson and Peed skim over these lightly, staying on the comic side of the neighborhood of the fearsome virago and the "wicked old tick, crooked as a corkscrew", who has sweated and bullied his two older sons until they have run away. On the day that begins act one, Hogan's third son, Mike (John Byrnes) is sneaking off, too -- with a suitcase and some six dollars his sister has stolen from their father for him. Josie can't resist a last opportunity to abuse Mike herself, though, favoring him with a humiliating clout or two and condemning him as a lazy and spiritless "priest's pet" the farm will be better off without.

Presumably the son of the respectable Tyrones has adopted Phil Hogan as a friend and father-substitute as a way of affirming his own wild side, and Josie Hogan as a friend and sister-substitute because he sees her a kind of female version of his untamed self. Josie, like Jim, has a larger-than-life father who demands that his family serve him, but Phil Hogan enforces his will with his fists as well as with the remnants of patriarchal authority. Josie, however, can beat her old man at his own game. She can insult and brawl as well as Phil can, and one by one she has helped her exploited and abused brothers escape to find lives of their own. Her father calls her "a daughter as big and strong as a bull, and as vicious and disrespectful". Barefoot, be-ragged, and towering over everyone else on the New Rep stage, Anne-Marie Cusson is at ease as the rural goddess, rooted to that cruel and barren place and unfit for any other in the wider world.

Cusson communicates clearly the two-sided nature of Josie's physical being. She is a giant of a woman who is proud of her size and strength and her native wit, and she uses them in the causes of justice and nurture. What a matriarch Cusson's Josie would make! But she is also conscious that her qualities have nothing in them of the ideal of femininity held by the Catholic church or current with the eligible men in the neighborhood. Josie has rejected her rejecters by cultivating a reputation for brazen talk and loose behavior, proving (to herself at least) that if there is no man who cares for her enough to consider marrying her there are plenty who find her a fit object for their lust. Josie takes a perverse pride in this hard-won knowledge, and Cusson makes this believable. However, I suspect that the actress is too much a healthy modern woman to appreciate and convey just how much this cruel division between love and lust poisoned every prospect for a woman of Josie's time and place.

At twenty-eight Josie Hogan has good reason to doubt that she will ever have a husband and children and a farm of her own where she could raise and train the horses she has a gift for handling. Josie, like her drunk of a father, has no education, no skills beyond farming, and America is turning into a nation of cities and factories. This is what makes every conflict a desperate last-ditch action, and fuels the viciousness and spite of the Hogan "jokes". The first half of the play comes off too cute for its own good.

The main "joke" of act one is the Hogans' treatment of their rich Connecticut neighbor, one T. Stedman Harder ( Duncan Putney ), and at the matinee I saw the joke fell embarrassingly flat. Harder has ridden over to complain about the Hogan pigs being set loose to damage his valuable country estate, and for the Irish Hogans he represents all the oppressive powers of the Anglo-aristocracy. Father and daughter bully, threaten, and humiliate Harder, to the gleeful guffaws of Jamie Tyrone, who has hidden out of sight where he can appreciate the Hogan performance. But even as Harder runs off with his tail between his legs they must all know that time and civilization are on his side. The Hogan triumph is of the moment only -- yet Putney seemed to be playing Harder from the Hogan point of view, rather than as an eventual nemesis.

James Tyrone Junior makes an appreciative audience for the Hogan japes because he imagines that although, to be sure, Josie and her father are trapped in poverty and ignorance, at least they are free of the hypocritical facade that the Tyrones maintained to hide from themselves as well as their neighbors the bitter truth of their failed lives.

But of course Josie isn't free at all. She is stuck with her background even more than Jim is, and the opportunities to expand her soul through education and creativity that Jim despises himself for having wasted were never be open to her at all. The two of them are alike in the depth of their rage and bitterness, and alike also in that each envies the other's style. They are soul mates, a romantic pair-- the noble savage and the decadent son of a public icon. Father Phil thinks their romance should be consummated in marriage -- certainly that would solve his and Josie's financial embarrassments. The scheming of Phil to trap Jim into marriage -- and through Phil's instigation, Josie's mistaken maneuvering to the same end -- form the main plot of the play. And these days, the plot is a problem.

The forward motion of the play hinges on whether, contrary to her own shameless admission and the testimony of the local men down at the bar, Josie is a virgin-- and on whether Jim will marry her. These questions just don't have the significance today that they did in the past. In the Old Country, in the old days, Josie could only be a virgin or a whore. If she were a virgin, then a gentleman who is attracted to her has certain moral obligations, matters of her honor and his. A gentleman, a good man, a guided by true love, will restrain himself, or if in the heat of passion he lets himself be carried away and over the line, then he will do right by her and marry her. If a woman's not a virgin, then she is a whore, and a man who uses her owes her nothing: what they do together is sinful and disgusting, and the shame and guilt of it makes love, or even friendship, impossible. They must and will hate the one who has occasioned sin.

Here in the New World both James and Josie have lost the secure sense that this pattern conforms to the immutable law of a Heavenly Father. But they haven't broken free from the pattern, their emotions are still shaped by it. They condemn themselves as that implacable Father would, even though they no longer believe in Him as a living presence who will reward them on earth and through eternity if they obey him. In their experience, obeying fathers is an impossibility. Fathers aren't to be trusted. The more you love them, the less likely it is that what they are likely to be telling you is the truth. But they haven't found a truth of their own to put in the place of the Father's, so they are unable to be truthful with each other, either.

These two lost souls circling around each other in search of a truthful way to come together in the long moonlit night of act two is painful beyond words. Their sunrise acceptance of love's defeat is even more painful: death is the only consummation and consolation for these misbegotten children. "May you have your wish and die in your sleep soon, Jim darling", is Josie's benediction . "May you rest forever in forgiveness and peace."

O'Neill has often been characterized as having, as one of his play titles has it, a "touch of the poet" without ever quite finding the exact magical words. His poetry is of the theatre, of the eye and the mind more than of the ear. (Although the words of the "Moon" script aren't half bad, the echoes and approximations apt expressions of character.) The New Rep production works, when it does-- and it does at all the really important points--- because it is drenched in the nonverbal poetry of theatrical craft. Beyond the actors' loving delineation of subtext, John Malinowski 's lighting is magical, picking out and making shine through the rough surfaces all the vulnerability and tenderness underneath. This is moon-magic, transforming ugliness and pain. Janie Fliegel 's beautiful tumble-down ruin of farmhouse is realistic only as facade -- open the door and it opens onto an eternity of blue sky, and at the edges sketchy leaves and a visible frame proclaim the whole enterprise metaphor. Toni Elliott 's costumes, too, tell us all we need to know if we have enough of a sense of history to "read" them.

There is some question as to whether we as audience have kept alive enough of that sense of history, and enough patience, to allow the O'Neill poetry do its work. The matinee audience I was part of was unusually small, and not very responsive. Not everyone stayed until the end. Those who did, however, were rewarded with the rare and cleansing experience we recognize as authenic tragedy.