REVIEWS AND ABSTRACTS
1. A MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN, dir. Jeff Perry. Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Chicago, IL, May 11 - June 5, 1983.
The decision by Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company to offer A
Moon for the Misbegotten in repertory was a brave and rewarding
one. O'Neill's epilogue to Long Day's
Journey Into Night and elegy for his brother Jamie has had a very
uneven critical reception, at least in this country. The play
premiered in Columbus, Ohio, on Feb. 20, 1947, and closed the
following month, on March 29, after a tour of Cleveland, Detroit,
Pittsburgh, and St. Louis. Comments by Columbus reviewers on opening
night are representative of the emphatic "all or nothing" reactions
the play has elicited. Bud Kissel, for example, christened it "Tobacco
Road with an all-Irish cast" and felt the actors had wasted
their time on an "unimportant play" in which "action occurs only when
somebody picks up a bottle and drinks" (Columbus Citizen, Feb.
21, 1947). Diametrically opposed was Mary
McGavran, who believed Moon
"represents all the art that is theatre" and showed O'Neill's genius
for "stripping the comic mask from life and revealing it naked and
afraid" (Columbus Ohio State Journal, Feb. 21, 1947). Being
banned in Pittsburgh as a slander on motherhood did little to enhance
the play's reputation, and its Broadway debut was postponed for a
decade. Though Moon achieved critical acclaim in
always-sympathetic Stockholm in 1953, when it was finally produced in
New York in 1957, the venture was again ill-fated. While Richard Watts
found it "moving and shattering ... [a] haunting emotional experience,
further proving O'Neill was a titan of the theatre" (New York Post,
May 3, 1957), his was the minority view. Far more common were the
verdicts of Brooks Atkinson—"prolix and uneventful and tired" (New
York Times, May 3, 1957)—and Walter Kerr—"O'Neill seems to have
Why has A Moon for the Misbegotten elicited such diverse reactions? One reason concerns the curious blend of comedy and tragedy that infuses the play. Act I is entirely broad comedy: the rapier wit of Phil and Josie as they battle each other, followed by the verbal slaying of Harder as father and daughter join forces to vanquish this figurehead of Standard Oil aristocracy in the name of their pigs' territorial rights. As staged by Steppenwolf, the barnyard scene captured exactly the absurd, posturing tone of the mock-epic, and I found myself thinking of Chaucer's "Nun's Priest's Tale," which I haven't read for years. Steppenwolf's masterful handling of Act I showed unmistakably the acute sense for the comic that O'Neill possessed.
Just as the perennial problem in staging Desire Under the Elms concerns the sinister and maternal elms that rest their sagging breasts on the Cabot farm, so the inevitable difficulty in casting Moon is Josie, that oversized, club-wielding female Hercules who is both farm-girl and saint. Mary Welch, who played Josie in the 1947 production, recollected O'Neill's willingness to overlook his own impossible specifications for Josie—nearly six feet tall, one hundred eighty pounds, huge warm breasts, stronger than two men but "all woman"—and the dramatist's feeling that the ability to capture Josie's emotional quality was more important than the size of the actress playing the part. Steppenwolf also disregarded O'Neill's directions, and Moira Harris's authentic Irish brogue and touching mask of vulnerable invincibility more than made up for her being an average-sized woman endowed with less than spectacular breasts. Barefoot, ragged, feisty and capable, she never faltered for three hours. Josie is O'Neill's most demanding female role—I say that in full awareness that many will ask, "What about Mary Tyrone?"—because she must be so many contradictions at once: funny, serious; ashamed, proud; ordinary, symbolic; lusty, maternal; whore, virgin. Harris's Josie was both individual and symbol. Thus, her pathetic attempts to make herself beautiful for her date with Jim at the beginning of Act II are typical and completely believable; she is every woman trying to look her best. Yet later in the play she is also Woman, who can offer Tyrone the peace and absolution he craves.
Alan Wilder as Phil Hogan, a mixture of James Tyrone, Sr. and Con Melody, was a worthy opponent for Harris's Josie, convincingly combining his desire to be his daughter's boss with a grudging admiration for her because he fails so completely. Josie and Phil's mutual insults must be acid and barbed to show their verbal acumen, yet the tone must be sufficiently light to reflect the great fun they are having. They must make it clear that their exchanges are a ritual of their everyday life:
Josie and Phil are two of a kind, instinctively understanding each other:
Steppenwolf's Josie and Phil worked so well together, in fact, that I realized they are two of a kind, not Josie and Jim, as critics are so fond of pointing out. Moreover, watching this production made me realize that Jim Tyrone is not the central character, nor is he even the second most important; those roles are filled by Josie and Phil. We can feel immense pity for Jim, but our admiration and interest must go to father and daughter. Jim is merely a catalyst for Josie; he comes into the play with no hope of change or dramatic development. We do not expect character development in Hamlet's father, and the same is true with Tyrone. He is static—and well he should be, because he is dead, like the ghosts he talks about so often. In Josie's own words, he is "a dead man walking behind his own coffin." Rick Snyder delivered a moving performance as Tyrone, combining banter and despair in equal measure. The most effective scene, in retrospect at least, occurs in Act I when we see how immediately Jim "belongs" in the company of Josie and her father; he speaks their language, he possesses their verbal acuity and their sense of humor. But it is all in vain. He has simply come too late.
Tom Irwin (Harder) was perfect as the stuffy, impeccably jodhpur-clad aristocrat whose "four undergraduate years will always be for him the most significant of his life." Irwin fulfilled O'Neill's requirements exactly—pudgy, immature, lethargic, a bit stupid—and Josie and Phil simply overwhelm him with their indignant accusations that his pond is a health hazard to their pigs, who are dying by the score of pneumonia and cholera. Tyrone's action throughout this scene is emblematic of his position throughout the play: hidden in the ramshackle farmhouse, he watches, clutching his drink, laughing, but not participating—an observer only, detached and apart. Indeed, he has an air of detachment throughout Moon: he knows how it will end.
Deb Gohr's set was faithful to O'Neill's directions, and the dilapidated farmhouse was a stark reminder of the poverty in which Josie and her father live. Most effective, however, was Steppenwolf's use of a train whistle to indicate those times when Jim is not in the present but is a ghost haunting the past, when he is in the train with a blonde pig while his mother's body is "in the baggage car ahead." The train whistle is first used at the very end of Act II. Josie is in the house getting whiskey; Tyrone waits alone in the darkness outside. Trying to light a match for a smoke, he shakily succeeds at last, and at that instant his face illuminated and tortured—the train whistle sounds. We see his face for only a split second, then the match goes out and the train whistle stops. It was a breathtaking moment, absolutely riveting.
—Susan H. Tuck
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