The things that happen after sun goes down

`Misbegotten' tells of three people who let out their secrets


May 22, 2002|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN STAFF

A Moon for the Misbegotten often is seen as Eugene O'Neill's tribute to his brother, James, whose death from acute alcoholism in 1923 the playwright mourned and resented for the rest of his life. But it almost makes more sense to look at the play as a puzzle, as a series of questions that the playwright posed to himself.

It's significant that there's only one entirely fictitious creation in Moon - the farm girl Josie Hogan. Every other character is a thinly veiled version of people the O'Neill family knew, and many of the events recounted in the play actually occurred.

It's easy to picture Eugene wondering if the right woman, perhaps, might have saved his brilliant brother, and then imagining what such a heroine would have been like. It's easy to envision Eugene using his pen to trace the couple's fictitious relationship from its start to its inevitable finish. The ending that the playwright wrote must have broken his heart.

In the production running through June 16 at Arena Stage in Washington, director Molly Smith does a fine job of balancing the real-life tragedy with the dreamlike elements. Better yet, she cannily plays up every moment of humor in the script.

O'Neill's plays can seem just a half-step away from Greek tragedy, with their larger-than-life characters, exalted language and heightened emotions (without, however, the moral purpose of the Hellenic texts). But O'Neill's plays also are just a half-step away from melodrama. One false move and the audience can get the giggles.

Emphasizing the wit and silliness in the first act avoids these pitfalls without undercutting the play's poignancy. It also subtly alters the chemical balance of the entire work, making a tragedy into a rueful, bittersweet comedy - albeit one with a melancholy ending.

In the play, James Tyrone Jr. is the landlord of a hardscrabble farm inhabited by his tenants: Phil Hogan, a blustering, hot-tempered Irishman who always has a "trick hidden behind his tricks," and Phil's daughter, Josie. Both James and Josie are united by their self-loathing - James, because of his drinking, and Josie, because of her imposing physique - she is so big and strong, O'Neill writes, that she is nearly a freak. To hide her fear of rejection, she adopts the guise of the town slut.

The romance between the Latin-quoting, dissipated James and the tough-talking, uneducated farm girl is tested by a neighbor's offer to buy the farm the Hogans have rented for the past 20 years. James needs the money, but a sale would cost the father and daughter their home and livelihood.

The set designed by Kate Edmunds is brooding and spare. There's a fence, a wall made of rocks, a series of stone steps and a hand pump. But the house with the sod roof built into the side of a hill is a dubious choice, because it is so evocative of Ireland - especially since fiddle music plays during scene changes. The audience can be misled into thinking that the action takes place in the old country instead of its actual setting: Connecticut.

The play's two leading male actors, Robert Hogan (Phil) and Tuck Milligan (James) are superb. Hogan has the Irish brogue down, well, pat, and Milligan knows how to casually toss off outdated Roaring '20s slang so that it sidles into our ears as stealthily as a burglar, without raising a fuss. And he delicately hints that the emotional underpinning of Jim's self-disgust is rage at the people he loves - not an easy psychological concept for an actor to convey.

With her bare feet and wide-legged stance, Janice Duclos has the right physical build as Josie. But Duclos sometimes seems a bit quavery and uncertain, without the inner strength that springs from that character's deep-seated, maternal tenderness. This Josie seems more a pawn of the two men than as a force to be reckoned with who helps to determine her destiny - and theirs.

The characters reveal their secrets on a fine summer night, and lighting designer Allen Lee Hughes bathes them in a forgiving pool of white. But although the characters refer to it frequently, Hughes keeps the source of that light off-stage. We never see the moon itself, although we feel its effects.

Moon for the Misbegotten

Where: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., S.W., Washington

When: 7:30 p.m. Sundays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. selected Sundays. Through June 16

Admission: $32-$49

Call: 202-488-3300

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