In Eugene O’Neill’s classic drama A Moon for the Misbegotten, two lost souls reach out to each other across a blighted stretch of earth, riding waves of hope and heartbreak in pursuit of a love that was doomed from the very beginning.
In their absorbing new production, Heritage-O’Neill Theatre Company has breathed fresh life into the tale of the Hogan family and the cursed James Tyrone, Jr. (Sean Coe), highlighted by Lisa Hodsoll’s transcendent performance as the hard nosed, big hearted Josie Hogan.
The play traces the events that transpire on the Hogan family farm during one day in September of 1923. Cantankerous patriarch Phil Hogan lives with daughter Josie and son Mike on a hardscrabble piece of land that is more rock farm than arable land. Their only friend in the area is their landlord, the whisky-soaked James Tyrone. Tyrone’s well-coiffed exterior and affable manner conceals a lifetime of regret and pain. During the ensuing twenty four hours, the characters grapple with their personal demons while reaching out for the brighter tomorrow that has always seemed just out of reach.
In the program notes, Heritage O’Neill makes it clear that they have set out to take the well worn text in their own direction. The characters are imbued with outsize emotions and physicality. James Tyrone’s spirit burns more brightly, even as he has one foot in the grave; while he is dead on the inside, his exterior suggests a spirited, if troubled, dandy. Josie is possessed of both outer and inner beauty, and only in her mind is she the sort of beastly amazon depicted in previous productions. While it’s difficult to compare different productions across time and space, this emphasis on conflicting interior and exterior offers an interesting psychological counter to the literal interpretations of Josie as “a great big cow of a woman” and Tyrone as “a walking corpse”.
Director Karey Faulkner’s muscular direction allows the cast to tackle the rich text with a mix of abandon and artistry. The show lives and dies with the relationship between Josie and James, and in this area there is much to cheer.
As the emotional center of the small world of the play, Lisa Hodsoll’s Josie is a magnetic presence. Her quick wit and projected swagger mask the vulnerability and innocence of a woman confined to a tiny farm for her entire life. Hodsoll manages both identities with aplomb, registering Josie’s constantly shifting emotional landscape with her expressive eyes. She commandeers every one of her scenes, even when remaining silent; such is the range and strength of her performance.
As James Tyrone, Jr., Sean Coe brings a sly charm and tragic optimism to the role of a tortured soul drowning his dark past at the bottom of a whisky glass. While Coe’s first few scenes are unmemorable, his pained confession late in the second act sweeps away lingering doubt about his approach to the character. Coe’s riveting mood swings reveal a man who is alternately terrifying and pitiable, and his light touch early on only magnifies the impact of his eventual breakdown.
A late addition to the cast, Dexter Hamlett fills in ably as impish Phil Hogan. A world weary soul with a mischievous streak a mile long, he limps about the stage grumbling and scheming in entertaining fashion. While he wrings some quality laughs and emotion from his role as the good natured scoundrel, there are a few elements of his performance that bog down the early scenes. Certain facets of the father-daughter relationship never quite gel, and Hamlett’s American diction proves jarring, especially after his children open the show conversing in full Irish brogue. Hamlett is to be commended for such a strong showing on short notice, but it’s clear that the show could really hum with just a bit more prep time.
The design scheme is well suited to the intimate nature of the piece. The modest house flat, efficient lighting design, and use of the theater’s aisles brings the audience into a space that feels cozy while suggesting a vast expanse of sun-blasted farmland just beyond its borders. At first, the soulful folk score seems awkwardly tacked on to provide a more robust sense of place. However, it eventually proves its worth when a reprise of an earlier theme reemerges at a key moment to deliver a sledgehammer blow, supplementing the compelling performances as they build to a devastating climax.
The high and low points of Heritage O’Neill’s production mimic Josie and Jim’s emotional roller coaster ride in the third act. The doomed lovers careen about the stage, perpetually torn between leaving and staying, between committing and fleeing back to their respective spheres. As the play nears its close, the pair is totally spent. Their faces are beaded with sweat and tears, and their clothes are pincushioned with straw from the stage floor. At this point, their bedraggled visages perfectly mirrored this writer’s satisfied exhaustion after nearly three hours of uneven yet ultimately captivating drama.
A Moon for the Misbegotten
By Eugene O’Neill
Directed by Karey Faulkner
Produced by Heritage-O’Neill Theatre Company
Reviewed by Ben Demers
Running Time: Just under 3 hours