Inventive direction shows 'Moon' in a fresh, new light

January 08, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

"A Moon for the Misbegotten"

Where: Center Stage (Head Theater), 700 N. Calvert St.

When: Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7:30 p.m., matinees Sundays and most Saturdays at 2 p.m. Through Feb. 14.

Tickets: $22-$27.

Call: (410) 332-0033.

***

Church, brothel, music hall and pig farm. These are some of the eclectic elements that crop up in Eugene O'Neill's "A Moon for the Misbegotten." Director Lisa Peterson's production at Center Stage enhances this eclecticism by showcasing it in styles ranging from abstract to naturalistic, and the result is as unconventional as it is pure O'Neill.

From the player piano suspended from the ceiling (O'Neill was fond of these musical contraptions), to the use of direct audience address (a technique featured in some of his early experimental works), to the interjection of a music hall number (a reference to popular Irish-American entertainment of the day), Peterson has staged a production characterized by boldly creative, but entirely justifiable, risks.

Admittedly, not all of these risks are equally successful; for instance, the piano music that underscores some of the more florid storytelling passages competes with the text. Overall, however, Peterson's approach is a wise and gutsy break with the benchmark 1974 revival starring Jason Robards and the late Colleen Dewhurst.

The play, O'Neill's last, takes place near the end of the life of James Tyrone Jr., the character modeled after the playwright's alcoholic, womanizing older brother in "Long Day's Journey into Night." But unlike that dark text, "A Moon for the Misbegotten" is a work of redemption, catharsis -- even light.

Structurally, the plot is built on the creakiest of melodramatic devices -- the old "you-must-pay-the-rent"/"but I can't pay the rent" gambit. Jim Tyrone is the threatening landlord, and his tenants are a pig farmer named Phil Hogan -- played with infectious blarney by James J. Lawless -- and his lovely daughter, Josie. The chief departures from standard melodrama are that the characters kid about their hackneyed situation, and that the daughter, who describes herself as "a great ugly cow," is lovely only to Tyrone.

She is, in fact, the last vestige of loveliness in his life, and before the play ends, she must grant him absolution. This is tricky stuff to put across, particularly since Josie also represents a range of female archetypes, including mother, daughter, virgin and whore.

As Josie, Cherry Jones lacks the character's cow-like physical bulk, but she compensates by adopting a strapping tomboy bearing, and more importantly, there is a glow about her that verges on beatitude when she delivers the play's concluding benediction.

Jones makes it easy to understand what Stephen Markle's self-loathing Tyrone sees in Josie. But at the same time, he portrays this lost soul as so far gone that Josie's hopes tend to seem too hopeless from the start.

However, this does not daunt the characters' shared sense of being misbegotten, disjointed and out of place. This central theme is reinforced by director Peterson's deliberately jarring infusion of disparate touches, as well as by designer Kate Edmunds' abstract set, in which the notion of being misplaced is represented not only by the suspended player piano, but also by the stage floor, which is covered with the same type of barn siding, doors and windows as the Hogans' shanty.

"A Moon for the Misbegotten" closed prematurely out of town when it was first produced in 1947, and it was a work with which O'Neill was never fully satisfied. Today, however, the script is regarded as a modern masterpiece. Such status can render a text as dusty as, well, melodrama. But Peterson's inventive direction not only does away with such dangers, it offers a fresh perspective on a play whose roots are as ancient as the revered Irish tradition of oral storytelling and whose themes are as urgent as life, death, forgiveness and love.

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