Eugene O'Neill, one of America's greatest dramatists, wrote his last play in 1947, A Moon for the Misbegotten. It was a contradictory work a unique blend of comedy, melodrama, autobiography and imagination that combined the farcical with the tragic and the illusory with the real. A failure in its first Drama Guild incarnation, it took another 10 years to reach Broadway. Such investigation into the ambiguous nature of mankind is mirrored in O'Neill's own opinion of the piece: At first he loved it, but later came to loathe it. Though never successful in his lifetime, A Moon for the Misbegotten has since become recognized as one of his greatest theatrical achievements.
The Orlando-UCF Shakespeare Festival has chosen Moon as its first venture into the O'Neill oeuvre, with David Lee as the play's sensitive and insightful director. And as performed by a trio of outstanding actors, all of the work's pathos, humor and affection remain intact, resounding honestly within the intimate confines of the festival's Goldman Theatre. This production is a superb rendering of the work, one that takes the audience on a compelling emotional journey.
O'Neill offered Moon for the Misbegotten as a sort of coda to his earlier semi-autobiographical tale, A Long Day's Journey Into Night, which introduced the doomed Tyrone family. In both dramas, the character of Jamie Tyrone is a stand-in for the true-life James O'Neill, Eugene's guilt-ridden, drunken older brother.
In Moon, we meet James again some 20 years later. A hopeless alcoholic and whoremonger, he has frittered his life away, acting in mediocre theatrical productions and spending his time in bars and boudoirs. Haunted by his past mistakes and dissolute living, James' only happiness is spending time with Phil and Josie Hogan, two tenant farmers living on land owned by James' father, now entrusted to him. Phil is a pixyish Irish mate whose love of liquor is equal to James'. Josie is his daughter, the overweight earth mother whom James seeks for conversation and company and finally for forgiveness.
Festival stalwart Eric Hissom stars as James, and once again proves his ability to tackle the large roles with intelligence and empathy. Here, he embodies the soul of a man whose hopelessness is masked by a self-deprecating wit ("When I poison 'em, they stay poisoned"), but whose deepest self-loathing must continually be swathed in a mind-numbing cataplasm of alcohol. Moving seamlessly from faux-villainous landlord to hung-over degenerate to self-flagellating sinner, Hissom's rendition of the tortured Tyrone is artful and convincing.
Robertson Carricart plays Phil Hogan with the right amount of earthbound humor and pugnacious charm. His love of money and drink is as strong as his Irishman's tendency for hatching schemes and taking swings. But it is his true affection for Josie that allows the human side of his character to shine through.
As Josie, the woman who describes herself as a "big ugly hulk," Susan Felder is nothing short of a revelation. Felder captures Josie's contradictions with an all-embracing charity and grace, revealing the desperate longing of a woman who wishes to be loved for herself yet knows that she'll never claim James as her own.
O'Neill has been chastised for the way his characters oscillate wildly between love and hate, attraction and repulsion, doubt and resolution, in the space of a few lines. But it is precisely these theatrical conventions that allow his audiences to explore the antipodal nature of the human soul. In Moon for the Misbegotten, these dynamics create a pulsing energy that finally resolves into an appropriate and gratifying conclusion.