A Moon for the Misbegotten by Eugene OíNeill, at the Triad Stage, Greensboro, N.C., March 6 to 27, 2005. Directed by Preston Lane, with Lise Bruneau as Josie Hogan, Dane Knell as Phil Hogan, and Matthew Mabe as Jim Tyrone.
Anyone who loves great plays and who can get to the lovely city of Greensboro, N.C., and get a ticket, should see Preston Laneís exceptional production of OíNeillís A Moon for the Misbegotten mounted by the Triad Stage, the repertory theatre serving North Carolinaís Piedmont Triad. The matinee I saw on Sunday, March 13th may be the most entirely satisfactory of the many productions of the play Iíve seen.
As with all of OíNeillís major plays, the great problem is trusting the playwright and the play. Only by doing pretty much exactly what OíNeill asks for will the play work at all. When itís off even a little, itís barely possible to imagine why anyone might consider it a great play. When itís on, it seems impossible that anyone could think it anything but one of the greatest ever written. The latter was how I felt, watching and thinking about the Triad Stage performance.
The set, designed by Howard C. Jones, is realistic enough to suit the outwardly realistic tone of the play, with what looks like real dirt on the floor, old wood used for the porch and wall of the Hogan shanty, and a fine boulder in the foreground where some of the action takes place. Someone found a real wooden pitchfork for Mike to carry as he runs onstage at the beginning, in flight from his tyrannical father. Costumes by Kelsey Hunt were perfect. Sound design by Justin Grant was effective and everything worked perfectly. The stage manager was Catherine Hagner, and casting was by Cindi Rush Casting, Ltd. All are to be complimented. The support given by local businesses and institutions to a theatre which mounts plays that challenge an audience is especially commendable. This cannot have been an inexpensive production.
Kyle Payne, a young Greensboro actor and graduate of the UNCG theatre program, was convincing, funny and even sympathetic in his brief role as the self-righteous Mike. He made one hope that Mike will grow up and learn to cope with life in the city better than he copes with his father. Matt Giehll, who has had considerable regional experience, was just fine as the Standard Oil fop and villain, Harder. I look forward to seeing him in a more substantial part.
Dane Knell, who has wide experience on- and off-Broadway, and in regional theatres, is entirely satisfactory in the major part of Phil Hogan. He seemed to me better than Roy Dottrice who played the part very well in the Gabriel Byrne / Cherry Jones New York production of a few years ago in that he did not appear to be using, as Mr. Dottrice sometimes had, every old theatrical trick in the books to make Phil funny. Mr. Knell was very funny, and also very convincing in his love for and empathy with his cantankerous and deeply lovable daughter.
Matthew Mabe, who played in the Kevin Spacey production of The Iceman Cometh and who won a Drama Desk Award for one of his several Off-Broadway roles, gave the finest, deepest performance of Jim Tyrone that I have seen. Let me try to explain what I saw. The problem of playing Jim is deeper and far more demanding than to make him charming and lovable in the first two acts, which Mr. Mabe did very well. It is more than showing Jimís self-loathing when he thinks of his behavior at the time of his motherís illness and after her death as he brings her body to New York. What I have never seen before is an actor who could project what lies behind the charm, the bad behavior, and the self-loathing.
Toward the end of the twenty years he spent trying to get over his brotherís death, OíNeill finally began to understand things about his brother that were below or behind the charm and misbehavior. In the course of writing this play he forced himself to understand that his brother was possessed by a degree of self-loathing and inner emptiness or nothingness that are terrifying to try to imagine, let alone to live with. They are qualities that are perhaps unimaginable by most of us, and we may thank God for that. But it was only when OíNeill was finally able to understand the terrible inner emptiness of his brother that he could begin to know who Jim had been. Only then could he forgive Jim OíNeill for not being the man Eugene had needed him to be, and so complete his 20 years of mourning. He had to accept that his brother was incapable of loving anyone, not just his brother but especially himself, except in the moments that someone was helping him forget the inner emptiness. OíNeill wrote A Moon for the Misbegotten in order to try to know his brother and complete his mourning, and that required him to accept that Jim was empty and incapable of loving him, or even his mother, except as they fulfilled urgent requirements not to know at this moment the nothingness within him. Somehow Mr. Mabe let himself express that potential, which presumably exists in all of us, for seeing a nothingness within, a place without light or dimension. I donít know what it may cost Mr. Mabe to visit that non-place, the nothingness, but I have not seen another actor reach it, even Gabriel Byrne, at least in the performance I saw.
For OíNeill finally to accomplish knowing his brother, he invented a woman who loved the idea she had of Jim, and who, for various reasons, was not subject to the distractions (easy love affairs or a drifting into marriage, or whatever) which would incline a more ordinary or conventional woman not to waste much attention on Jim, a woman who would perhaps know intuitively that he could not give what she needed or accept what she could give. The particular, unusual circumstances of Josieís story put her in something like the position her creator had felt himself in Ė as the ten-year younger brother in a family in which reality was rarely stable or apparent, and who needed to believe himself loved and protected by someone like he thought his brother to be, one who knew the world and who had common sense.
Lise Bruneau gives us a Josie who is in something like the emotional place OíNeill thought himself to have been in growing up in a family in which only his older brother would tell the truth about how the world really was. Her father constantly manipulates people and circumstances so that the complex truths of the world or life outside the farm are not often visible to his daughter. She makes it apparent that her life with her father is interesting enough, and so much fun that, lacking a man she can respect enough to love and marry, there is little reason to seek a life elsewhere. And in part, she has managed to keep her own sexuality largely unknown to herself: something to joke about, but not something directly to feel. Thus, from her point of view, it is safe to fall in love with a man like Jim who she knows will never marry, and who, for whatever reason, will not force her to know more about her own sexuality than she wishes to know.
To give the audience an obvious-seeming reason for a person as attractive as Josie to remain single OíNeill wrote the part for a woman not only as sharp-witted and sharp- tongued as her father, but also as large and strong as a man (although, OíNeill adds, she is ďall womanĒ). In fact, when A Moon for the Misbegotten was to be performed in 1949 and no large actress was found suitable for the part, OíNeill chose Mary Welch, a woman of average size. During rehearsal and during the playís pre-opening performances in Columbus, Pittsburgh and Detroit, he thought Ms. Welch the only person involved with the play who understood her part and understood the play, and sent her red roses.
Lise Bruneau is a slim woman, perhaps slightly taller than average, costumed with large breasts and walking on very high heels, who moves beautifully on stage, like a dancer, and who also shows the strength of a dancer, or the strength to do a manís work in the fields of the farm. Her voice is so beautifully expressive that one wants to hear her sing. She almost literally dances and sings her way though the role of Josie, so that it is obvious why Jim would love her ďin his fashion,Ē would feel safe in flirting with her and come as close as was possible, for him, to feeling protective and loving toward her.
The moment of awakening comes most painfully for Josie. Persisting in her need to see Jim not as a dead man but as merely guarding his feelings against being hurt, she tries a little too directly, for him, to lead him to love. It is the beginning of the profound discovery for her, and for the audience, that makes the play as great as it is. It is the moment when one cannot fail to see that under certain circumstances profound comedy and profound tragedy are either one and the same thing, or so close to the same thing as to be indistinguishable. Mr. Mabe and Ms. Bruneau make the moment infinitely ugly and beautiful, infinitely sad and, for her and the audience, perhaps optimistic, as well. The moment leads directly to Jimís excruciating confession of his shameful behavior on the train bringing his dead motherís body from Los Angeles for burial. Mr. Mabe is entirely convincing in the self-loathing he shows for Jimís behavior with the hooker, and Ms. Bruneau is entirely convincing in the sequence of revulsion that leads her to understanding that Jim is an entirely different man than she has made herself believe him to be. Finally she can see and accept him as he is under the charm, and pity his emptiness, his deadness. He repeatedly tells Josie that heís dead, and she insists on understanding him to mean he feels like hell. Knowing she does not understand him, Jim finally tells her the dreadful story of his sleeping with the hooker on the train, every night, while the train takes his motherís body to New York. The story shocks and horrifies Josie, but her shock and horror seem caused not only by the story but by the recognition that she has never known Jim at all. Before our eyes we see her grow from her fatherís daughter to her own woman. She makes herself accept that Jim is a completely different man from the one she has thought she was in love with; she accepts the man she newly understands, a man who can give her nothing, a man she will never see again after this night.
Ms. Bruneau gives with great conviction and visible understanding a woman who can choose to spend a long night holding her ďdead child,Ē keeping away from him the wakefulness which will bring back to him his self-loathing. She does it for her own sake as well as for him. She began the night as a dependent daughter, and ends it the next morning as her own woman who can choose to remain with her father since no better alternative has yet presented itself. Josie grows from letting herself finally know who Jim is, as her creator grew from being able finally to know and accept his brother as the man he was, rather than the man Eugene needed him to be.
Great tragedy and great comedy have always been so close to each other as often to be indistinguishable, one from the other. We know this was the case in the ancient world, even though few examples of tragedy or comedy survive, because we have, among other examples, such related plays as Oedipus the King and Sophoclesís much later play Oedipus at Colonos. At the end of Oedipus the King the audience knows what Oedipus himself has come to know, that the world is nothing at all like he and almost everyone else has believed it to be, that is, a place where to some extent one can make decisions which allow one to control future events. What we call humanism and attribute to the 5th century Athenians is based on the premise that mind gives control. But the great drama of that same age belies humanism. The conflict between the two beliefs is enacted in the towering quarrel between Oedipus and the old blind seer Tiresias. To the latter nothing is more intolerable than his lot, to know the future and know that he can do nothing to avert future disaster or suffering. In Oedipus at Colonos Sophocles gives us an Oedipus who has learned that he understood nothing about the world. Throughout the strange and beautiful play, Oedipus, who once epitomized the humanistic virtues of forethought and worshipful self-reliance, now understands that worshipping the gods is best done by trying to align oneís self with the forces represented by the gods, and hope to avoid the lightning and storms of Zeus, the earthquakes created by Poseidon in the bottoms of the seas, or the other manifestations of the gods. In the Bakkhai of Euripides, comedy and tragedy coexist in a single play, that shows us more explicitly than anything until Shakespeare that whenever we reach the extremities of human experience, we discover that we know nothing of ourselves and our lives. Sometimes, for no visible reason (as in A Winterís Tale) we are made to see that things of benefit or harm to people occur without reasons visible to people, and all we can do is accept them. A Winterís Tale is an example of a great play some of whose greatness seems to come from the conjunction of tragedy and comedy within it. A Moon for the Misbegotten is another such example. The Triad Stageís wonderful production shows us the extraordinary potential for tragic and comic drama.
© Copyright 2005 Stephen A. Black. Stephen Black is Professor Emeritus at Simon Fraser University, British Columbia and author of Eugene OíNeill: Beyond Mourning and Tragedy.
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