Mooning Over Misbegotten

jenny wright and david jansen

I think that when Ontarian lawyer and playwright Brian Doherty first envisioned what would become the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake in 1962, he must have been imagining the production of a show like A Moon for the Misbegotten which closes at the Court House Theatre there on October 9th. It is the perfect mixture of intense, passionate, vivid performances and a gripping, poetic, poignant work by one of the giants of theatre history.
Despite its subsequent success, this play by Eugene O’Neill was initially dismissed as a “disaster” in Columbus, Ohio in 1947 and did not receive its Broadway debut until ten years later, four years after O’Neill’s death. Despite its rocky beginnings, A Moon for the Misbegotten truly stands the test of time and continues to lure fascinated audiences into the world of Phil and Josie Hogan.
The play is centered on an impoverished farmer named Phil Hogan and his sharp tongued daughter, Josie, who risk losing their farm to an affluent neighbor named T. Stedman Harder one night when their friend and landlord Jim Tyrone gets drunk. The story is told in the harsh vernacular of Irish-Americans in Connecticut in 1923, yet in O’Neill’s language there is a distinct sense of poetry that becomes thrilling and electric when spoken aloud. O’Neill cleverly constructs this story in a way that is hinged on the riddles within riddles and schemes within hoaxes that the characters weave, and thus, it is difficult for the audience to discern the truth from the trickery or to know whether one’s intentions are noble, playful or wicked. He also manages to create a play that uses biting dark humor to provoke and to appall, to elicit laughter and then, just as quickly, reduce the audience to heartfelt tears.
I read some reviews that condemned Jenny Young’s performance as Josie Hogan because she was not large enough. I heartily disagree. While I realize that O’Neill mentions in his stage directions that Josie is supposed to be tall (“almost a freak” were his well-chosen words) and quite hefty, I think this adheres to a negative female stereotype that only those who are “mannish” in physique can be strong-willed, independent and tough in character. Indeed, Jenny Young’s Josie is formidable in her ability to meet the world and all its challenges head-on while contesting with her father in continual battles of wits and shouting. For me, Young’s Josie conjured up the imagery of the hard, weary, resolute Irish immigrant with a sense of sturdiness about her and sheer grit in her eye, clad in plain clothes on a frame that reflected a poverty that left one undernourished with frustration and anger festering in her belly.
Josie Hogan is a marvelously nuanced character, and Jenny Young portrayed her with every ounce of fortitude and an attitude and reputation as filthy as her appearance. Yet, there is a far softer side to Josie, one that she struggles throughout the play to repress and deny, and Young was magnificent in her ability to express so much longing, tenderness and love in the glint of her eye. Josie hides behind a meticulously constructed façade that even her laughter and smiles feed into. There is one moment where her true smile shines through and it is as though all the moonlight is radiating onto her face for one glorious moment, and then, like everything, it disappears without a trace. Josie is torn up inside because she has a burning desire to connect with someone, and Young is able to express her emotions, as repressed and buried as they may be, in a heartbreaking and entirely captivating manner.
If Jenny Young gives one hundred percent of herself in her performance, Jim Mezon pours three hundred percent into Josie’s father, the brilliant old scheming fool, Phil Hogan. From the way Mezon tramps about the stage hollering, to the way he looks at his daughter and belts out Irish tunes as he stumbles around the stage in perfect drunkenness, Mezon gives a performance so complete and so detailed and beautiful that you forget that you’re watching a play. Like Josie, Hogan is filled with the most subtle of emotions and Mezon can communicate the love and admiration he has for his daughter in a mere glimmer that can’t even be captured in words. Mezon’s performance in this play is epically, wonderfully good. I felt very fortunate to have gotten a chance to experience it.
I found David Jansen’s portrayal of James ‘Jim’ Tyrone to be especially interesting. It seems as though O’Neill had intended for this play to be written as one with three starring roles; especially since Jim Tyrone is the same figure as Jamie Tyrone in his play Long Day’s Journey Into Night. However, in this production, I felt that Jansen’s attention to the creation of a dapper, poetical Broadway Gentleman who never seemed to get drunk in the same crass, loud, Irish way as Phil Hogan, meant that Tyrone faded a bit more into the background. Of course, he has an Act with Josie, but even then, this Jim Tyrone seems as meek as she is vociferous. I liked the tension that this provided, as Tyrone stood in stark contrast not only to Josie and Phil, but to the surrounding dilapidated farm, the frolicking pigs and everything else under this moon. The only thing I felt did not resonate as strongly as it might have was the peril of Tyrone’s alcoholism. At the end of the play I knew he was going to his death because O’Neill was telling me that he was, yet Jansen did not make me feel that same sense of urgency, danger or dismay. I would be curious to see a production of this play where Tyrone is played with as much fortitude as Josie and Phil, especially since he does, it has been stressed by O’Neill, need to always remain a gentleman.
Patrick McManus gave a hilarious brief turn as T. Stedman Harder in the play’s most humorous act, and Billy Lake gave a commanding and passionate performance as Mike, Josie’s younger brother. I wish that O’Neill had written a sequel about Mike Hogan as I was very curious where he had gone and what trouble had met him along the way. Joseph Ziegler directed the production with the ultimate in realism which (with help of the set by Christine Poddubiuk) thrust the audience onto the Hogan’s front stoop and made their business ours. Jenny Wright shelled green beans and folded laundry, while Jim Mezon continually soaked his handkerchief with water from a working pump onstage and this helped the audience feel the heat of the day, the serenity of the night, and the bright revelations that came with the rise of the moon.
One of the advantages to productions that were seen as controversial or obscene in their time, is that most often they are the ones with the ability to transcend their own decade, and often even their own century and to speak poignantly and dynamically about the human experience and the human heart. A Moon for the Misbegotten, despite the fact that it was written in another time and another place, told a story I found so familiar that it almost haunted me. That is the power of a brilliant playwright, the ability for an audience to sit in a theatre decades after the man who penned the words has died, and to feel as though he had written them specifically for this occasion, for this moment in time, and for this world; just as we all look at the moon and swear that it’s following us.

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