There's a presence lurking in the wings of A Moon for the Misbegotten at American Stage, a presence whose name is Long Day's Journey Into Night.
Watching the drunken, pitiable James Tyrone in Moon, one can't help but remember the same figure in Long Day's Journey, raging at and embracing his brother Edmund, sinking under the knowledge that his mother is a morphine addict and he himself a drunken bounder full of anger and resentment. When James speaks of his mother's funeral, you have to imagine Mary Tyrone of Long Day's Journey, at peace at last, after carrying the burden of her addiction — and her troubled marriage — for so long. And when he calls his father a "tightwad," you have to recall how often this charge was made in Long Day's Journey, how it was turned into a joke by James and Edmund, but became utterly serious when it threatened to interfere with Edmund's recovery from consumption.
If Moon is a fine play — and it is, as this lovely production amply demonstrates — part of its power surely comes from our interest in Long Day's Journey, our desire to know what finally became of the haunted Tyrones. The parents died, is the answer, the sickly son recovered and went on to marry and to father children, and the older brother, James Jr. ...
Well, that brings us to Moon, and the relationship that James has with Josie Hogan, daughter of a tenant farmer on the Tyrone estate. Josie is crude, uncultured, tough but capable of gentleness, while James is drunken, self-pitying, self-hating and doomed. To watch these two potential lovers respond to each other is to watch one of the most complicated dances in American theater.
Josie wants revenge on James for apparently betraying her father Phil on the subject of his farmland; but she's also in love with drunken James, and half-desperate to believe that she's not such "an ugly overgrown lump of a woman" that a man of his quality can't find her worthy of his affections. James, for his part, wants two things from Josie: her body, in the usual sexual way, and her pure virgin soul, to forgive him for sins against the memory of his departed mother. On a moonlit evening in front of Phil and Josie's dilapidated house, Josie and James struggle with themselves and each other until the decision is finally made, what their relationship will be. Then morning comes and the lovers separate; we sense that they'll never see each other again.
It's a powerful drama, and it's given a superb production at American Stage. Much of the credit belongs to Julie Rowe, who plays Josie with such admirable attention to detail, that I find it impossible to distinguish between the actress and the role. This is a marvelous, unconventional heroine, one who proudly lacks every sort of physical grace, who could knock down a couple of men without breaking a sweat, but whose yearning for love is as genuine as anything ever shown by a dainty Juliet.
As James Tyrone, Ned-Averill Snell is just as convincing, being at one moment the debonair man-about-Broadway, at another a self-despising drunk whose behavior is only intermittently within his own control. I've seen just about everything Averill-Snell has done on local stages, and I'm happy to report that this is his best performance ever. He's particularly good at showing a divided consciousness, as when he grabs at Josie with sexual intent, then calls out "Nix!" and pulls himself away from her.
As Josie's father, Loring Stevenson is simply delightful: crusty, crotchety, infinitely pleased with himself but not too blind to ignore his daughter's need for a mate. And Harry Richards, in the small part of wealthy T. Stedman Harder, is appropriately clueless; we can feel O'Neill's disdain for him in every word that he speaks. Only T. Scott Wooten as Josie's brother Mike fails to convince; but this part is so minor, it's easily forgotten.
Director Todd Olson — also the theater's artistic director — stages the show with admirable clarity. I've seen two other versions of Moon here and in Boston, and this is the first time that I felt that a production illuminated all corners of the work, all characters and all themes. In fact, I think it's fair to say now — after Stones in His Pockets and Moon — that Olson is a remarkably talented director and an important addition to Bay area theater.
He also has a flair for working with designers. David Fillmore's set, the exterior of the wooden shanty that Phil and Josie Hogan call home, is realistic to the last detail and even a little shocking in its (intentional) disrepair. Amy J. Cianci's costumes, from Josie's dirty smock to James Tyrone's three-piece suit, are always just right, and Joseph P. Oshry's lighting is quietly perfect. I'm not quite sure about the song that opens and closes the play, though — it has an Appalachian feel to it, while Moon takes place in New London, Connecticut. In any case, it's a haunting tune, sung by a female voice that reminds us of Josie.
Still, it's James Tyrone's play. Beleaguered and tormented, he finds peace in the course of A Moon for the Misbegotten, and even if it's not enough to save him from ruin, it interrupts his decline for at least one blessed moment. I think of this privileged moment — the evening James spends with Josie — as Eugene O'Neill's gift to his brother, his offering, decades after the real James died, of love and respect. It seems that O'Neill was dissatisfied with the portrayal of his brother in Long Day's Journey. Moon is his atonement.
And it's finally as loving, as tender,
as anything to be found in the American theater.