Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Long Night's Journey into Day: Williamstown Theatre Festival's A Moon for the Misbegotten

(left to right) Glynn Turman, Audra McDonald and Will Swenson. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

A three-hour drive through the backwoods of Massachusetts in order to sit through an equally long Eugene O’Neill play gives you a lot of time to contemplate the anxiety-inducing question of whether the production will be any good. Fortunately, the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s A Moon for the Misbegotten features a central performance that just about makes the trip worth it. Moon has become such a fixture in the canon of Great American Plays that it’s easy to forget just how odd it is. O’Neill’s drama, which tells the story of James Tyrone and his final encounter with poor farmer’s daughter Josie Hogan, begins in a semi-comic vein, with stage-Irish horseplay and a flirtation between Tyrone and Josie. There are also elements of rent-day melodrama, with looming questions over who will end up with the farm on which the Hogans live and which Tyrone owns.

Then, as night falls, the play takes a decided turn, leading up to an immensely touching scene in the titular moonlight on the steps of the Hogan farmhouse. The comedy dissipates entirely, and O’Neill’s true intent becomes clear: it’s a dramatic re-imagining of his real-life brother James O’Neill, Jr.’s final days, one in which the playwright gets to write both his brother’s confession of his awful behavior before and after their mother’s death as well as an absolution for these sins. It’s a weird sort of anti-tragedy: at the end of the play, Tyrone exits towards his death, but we’ve come to understand that this is a mercy, and that, thanks to Josie, he’s achieved a modicum of peace. The play ultimately comes to transcend its Realist trappings and approaches closer to Symbolism, with the religiously-charged image of Tyrone lying in Josie’s arms like a modern Pieta. The action, confined to one location and a twenty-four hour time span, begins with the end of one day and the sun’s rising on another, which parallels the shifts in tone throughout the play. Call it Long Night’s Journey Into Day.

If you’re unfamiliar with the play and confused by what I’ve just told you, you’re not alone – I saw the show with a group of very intelligent people who were still somewhat mystified afterwards as to what the central dramatic action of the play was supposed to have been. That might be due to some of the shortcomings of Gordon Edelstein’s production as much as the play itself, but it’s undeniably true that Moon is a difficult play; it took nearly two decades after its initial premiere and O’Neill’s death for audiences and critics to appreciate what a masterpiece O’Neill had written. The production that changed their minds, with Jason Robards, Jr. and Colleen Dewhurst in the lead roles, casts a shadow over the play’s history that continues to this day.

Will Swenson and Audra McDonald in A Moon for the Misbegotten. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Although O’Neill’s centrally concerned with Tyrone, it’s Josie who dominates the stage for almost the entire length of this marathon play. In this regard, it’s fortunate that Audra McDonald is this production’s Josie, because she elevates what would otherwise have been a mediocre rendering of the play. It’s admittedly become hard to give a level-headed evaluation of a McDonald performance: the New York Times review of this production drew an apt parallel between her cachet on Broadway and Meryl Streep’s reputation in Hollywood. I’d qualify that by adding that McDonald, unlike Streep, actually deserves the praise heaped upon her, as she’s reliably capable of turning out tours-de-force while remaining grounded in her character and acknowledging the existence of her fellow actors.

With that proviso out of the way, I must say that I found McDonald’s turn as Josie mesmerizing. One minute she’s stalking the Hogans’ wealthy neighbor with a mixture of comic exaggeration and leonine menace, the next she’s holding Tyrone in her arms on the steps, her face registering an irreducible mixture of sadness, pity, compassion, and perhaps just a hint of resignation. Other than that iconic latter moment, she’s especially affecting in the beats where she allows Josie to drop her swaggering pretense that she’s worldly and sexually voracious, letting show her fearful uncertainty towards the prospect of actually sleeping with Tyrone.

It’s hard to see how any production could fully match up to McDonald’s performance, and unfortunately the rest of the show doesn’t really come close. Will Swenson, who’s married to McDonald, isn’t bad as Tyrone, but he’s fundamentally miscast. He’s simply too pretty to make sense in the role, failing to convincingly register as so guilt-wracked and world-weary that his impending demise will come as a blessing. Instead, it seems like a waste of a perfectly nice young man who just needs to sober up. It might be that he’s the right James Tyrone in the wrong play: I found myself wondering how he’d handle the role in Long Day’s Journey Into Night. However, were he to attempt such a thing, he’d also have to work on aspects of his performance, as he falls into a repetitive, staccato vocal rhythm early on and gets stuck in that groove. That’s connected to his one-note choice of tactics in his early scenes, in which he seems to be aiming to deflect everything and everyone, with little variation in terms of how he interacts with the Hogans from beat to beat. I should say that he comes noticeably alive later on, in the wake of a beat where he effectively almost rapes Josie (more about that in a moment). Everything he does from that point on feels different, charged with a sense of purpose that had been missing previously. It’s not enough to completely salvage the role, but it’s a welcome development as the pivotal scene of the play approaches.

Glynn Turman in A Moon for the Misbegotten. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

The other major presence in Moon, although a decidedly less important one than either Jamie or Josie, is Phil Hogan, the tenant on the farm where the play takes place. Glynn Turman, who made his Broadway debut opposite Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee in A Raisin in the Sun, gets some of the broader comic aspects of Hogan right, but his performance is hampered by his tendency to insert “uh”s and slight pauses into the middle of his lines, which hampers the flow of O’Neill’s language. I couldn’t tell if this was a choice or Turman coping with the difficulties of memorizing and performing such a dense work on a compressed summer rehearsal schedule. Howard W. Overshown and Aaron Costa Ganis round out the cast, although their parts are so small in relation to the three main roles that they don’t have much time to make an impression.

Whatever the cast’s successes or shortcomings, they’ve been given an excellent environment in which to play their roles, thanks to the costumes of Jane Greenwood, the lighting of Jennifer Tipton, and the set, which is essentially Ming Ho Lee’s design from an earlier production, “restored and adapted” by Lee Savage. I can see why Lee’s set was brought back for this Moon: it’s a wonderful realization of the Hogan farmhouse that slants rather precipitously downstage (it’s the closest thing to an actual raked stage that I can remember seeing) and provides the actors with a variety of levels on which to play. It also lets us see inside the house, which does admittedly make for one awkward moment, when a short scene between Josie and Phil is partially obstructed from view. Tipton’s lighting is also especially lovely, with her recreation of the dawn at the end of the play perfectly complementing the mood of the final scenes.

Audra McDonald in A Moon for the Misbegotten. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

As for Gordon Edelstein’s direction, it’s a mixed bag. He finds some dynamic uses for the stage space, but on the conceptual level his production makes a few questionable choices, and one huge error. In an interview in the program, Edelstein makes a point of highlighting the reconfigured racial dynamics of this production, in which all three the Hogans are played by African-American actors. I’m always excited to see plays in the classical repertory cast with minority actors, but Edelstein justifies this choice by saying that it’s based on the idea that modern audiences can’t really grasp the relationship between rich and poor Irish-Americans that’s a minor supporting theme of O’Neill’s play. Aside from the fact that class distinctions are still as prominent in society and politics today as they’ve ever been, the problem is that this is only half of a solution. It would be one thing to have an all African-American cast, race-blind casting, or some other device that abstracted the play’s focus on a specifically Irish-American identity. However, Edelstein’s still insisting on rooting the play in historical reality, albeit a slightly different one from what O’Neill depicts. The upshot of all this is that it doesn’t really do much to change the play’s dynamics, but it does make the abortive romance between Tyrone and Josie even more unlikely; when Josie tells her father that being caught in bed with her will embarrass Tyrone – “My mug beside his in all the newspapers – the New York papers, too – he’ll see the whole of Broadway splitting their sides laughing at him” – it takes on some additional and very ugly implications that just don’t fit with the rest of the play.

Finally, there’s Edelstein’s one glaring error. When the sexual tension between Tyrone and Josie builds to a head, there’s a moment on the front stairs of the farmhouse where he suddenly forgets where he is and who he’s with, and there’s a hint that he may force her into sex. O’Neill’s stage directions read that Tyrone “kisses her roughly” and “pushes her back into the doorway” of the farmhouse before Josie nearly pushes him off the stairs and he snaps back to himself, asking her with sincere confusion, “Was I trying to rape you?” Unfortunately, Edelstein takes that moment way too far: in this production, Josie doesn’t stop Tyrone until he’s thrown her onto her bed and has his pants down around his ankles. As I mentioned earlier, the intensity of that beat lights a spark in Swenson’s performance, but it also throws irreversibly skews the audience’s perception of the characters. It marks Tyrone as practically a rapist, and it sours what follows between him and Josie. The original moment is definitely an ugly and unflattering one for him, but this production turns it into something that threatens to permanently mar our ability to sympathize with the character, especially in an era when public awareness of sexual assault has become a much more prominent issue.

Whatever the shortcomings of this production, it’s still encouraging to see that O’Neill’s towering later works are still receiving regular revivals and fresh approaches. Even if everything in this version of Moon doesn’t quite work, there’s still McDonald’s excellent performance to recommend it, and hopefully this won’t be both her only encounter with this great American dramatist’s plays.

– Michael Lueger teaches theatre classes at Northeastern University and Emerson College. He's written for HowlRound and WBUR's Cognoscenti page. He also tweets about theatre history at @theaterhistory.

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