Monday, August 17, 2015

A Moon For the Misbegotten

photo: T. Charles Erickson
Audra McDonald cemented her living legend status in 2014, when she won her sixth competitive Tony, becoming not only the first actor to achieve that feat but also the first to win an award in each of the four major acting categories. She's excelled in musicals and opera, in Shakespeare and contemporary drama, in concert and on television -- to put it simply, she has nothing to prove. And yet, she continues to dazzle with her seemingly limitless range, which is currently on view in Gordon Edelstein's somewhat lopsided production of Eugene O'Neill's A Moon For the Misbegotten, playing through Sunday at Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts.

Anyone familiar with the play will know that the character of Josie Hogan is written as Irish American. McDonald, of course, is black, as are the excellent Glynn Turman and Howard W. Overshown, who play her father and brother. Having the Hogans played by actors of color offers two benefits: it strips the roles -- particularly that of Phil, the patriarch -- of their blarney, and dissuades the actors from playing them as drunken shanty stereotypes; further, it accentuates the class distinction between Josie and Jim Tyrone (played here by Will Swenson, who is white), the landlord of the farm the Hogans tend, for whom Josie secretly pines.

Tyrone -- an older version of the character who appears in O'Neill's masterpiece, Long Day's Journey Into Night -- is a broken man, an inveterate alcoholic swimming in a sea of self-hatred. His beloved mother is dead, and he lives for nothing more than his next drink and a little company. When Phil Hogan fears that Tyrone will sell the farm to an arrogant, wealthy neighbor (played, perfectly, by Aaron Costa Ganis), he convinces Josie, who has a reputation for being the town trollop, to seduce Jim and secure their land. What results is a dark night of the soul, filled to the brim with the kind of poetic misery only O'Neill can manage, dialogue that's often bracingly funny precisely because it's so unspeakably sad.

The Williamstown production has its high points. Lee Savage has breathtakingly restored the set used for Edelstein's 2005 Long Wharf Theatre production of the play, designed by the legendary Ming Cho Lee. The battered Connecticut farmhouse and rocky grounds perfectly capture the broken land on which the Hogans exist, described by O'Neill in the stage directions as "not, to speak mildly, an example of fine New England architecture, placed so perfectly in its setting that it appears a harmonious part of the landscape." Like Josie and Jim themselves, it is precarious, not rooted. The extraordinary set, along with the fine costumes and lighting design -- by Jane Greenwood and Jennifer Tipton, respectively -- immediately immerse the audience in the world of the play.

Of Josie, O'Neill wrote that "the map of Ireland is stamped on her face." Of course, McDonald is not Irish in the least, though she seamlessly scrubs any hint of glamour or poise from her carriage to convincingly embody the earthy, plain-spoken country woman. She finds the poetry in Josie's interactions with her father, at once tender and contentious, and the quiet doubt in her private revelations of love for Jim. Her physical performance finds all the right shades, from imposing height when she feels wrong to motherly tenderness when she cradles the man she loves in her arms.

Unfortunately, Swenson -- who is McDonald's real-life husband, and a Tony nominee in his own right -- does not have the chops to match his wife. From what I can tell, this is Swenson's first non-musical role on stage. I give him credit for having the chutzpah to tackle Tyrone on his first time out, and opposite an actress as formidable as his wife. However, his performance is of one shade, a slightly sterile white. Tyrone's shattering Act Four monologue felt little more than recited. And as good as McDonald's Josie is, the imbalance of power between them often made for static scene-work during their long evening together.

If Shakespeare "invented the human," as Harold Bloom once argued, then O'Neill is his only direct successor. His characters, including Josie and Jim, are the most fully-formed figures of twentieth century American drama. When they are embodied by great actors, the effect renders me speechless. I experienced moments of awe watching this production of A Moon For the Misbegotten, thanks mostly to Audra McDonald's mammoth talent. But I never achieved a state of transcendence, and that's a shame.

[full price tickets, third row center]

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