Leads, Lighting Beam In `Moon'

Posted: June 09, 1998

Mother. Virgin. Whore. This is the repertory of roles the unfortunate Josie Hogan gets to choose from in Eugene O'Neill's late classic, A Moon for the Misbegotten.

But, in most respects, the man Josie loves is in far worse shape: James Tyrone Jr. is a dissolute, self-hating drunk, whose charm can't disguise the pain of a man hurtling toward destruction.

The third principal character in this lyrical drama, which opened Friday at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival at Allentown College, is no great shakes either. Josie's father, Phil Hogan, is a drunkard and a schemer, whose love for her is tainted by self-interest and bursts of violence.

Despite its misogynistic undercurrents, which can make A Moon for the Misbegotten somewhat unsettling for contemporary audiences, this is a stunning play about love and redemption. And this festival production, with two remarkable actors in the lead roles and Erik A. Alberg's extraordinarily evocative lighting, brings it to powerful life.

As directed by Gerard J. Schubert, who's also the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival's producing artistic director, A Moon for the Misbegotten softens slightly the hard edges of O'Neill's autobiographical 1943 work.

To begin, there's the setting: Phil Hogan's Connecticut tenant farm, circa 1923. O'Neill's precise and lengthy stage directions describe it as ``an old boxlike, clapboarded affair . . . propped up . . . by timber blocks,'' painted a ``repulsive yellow'' and with some windowpanes missing. But set designer Bob Phillips' version of ramshackle is more harmonious-looking, and his set as a whole, with its backdrop of trees, has the look of a Horace Pippin painting.

O'Neill specifies that Josie, a sort of would-be playgirl of the Western world, is ``so oversize for a woman that she is almost a freak.'' In fact, Grace Gonglewski is nothing of the kind - which doesn't prevent her from conveying Josie's bluster, as well as her neediness.

H. Michael Walls plays Josie's father, Phil, as a bumbling and amiable ne'er-do-well with a taste for good jokes and bad booze. His inebriated stumbling and slurring is quite convincing. What's missing is a fierceness that might have lent the character more gravity, and more menace.

But there's both menace and charm in Greg Wood's riveting portrayal of James Tyrone, the Hogans' landlord and Josie's sometime suitor. Tyrone, considered to be a portrait of O'Neill's alcoholic brother, is alternately vicious and adoring towards Josie, whom he claims to love ``in my fashion.''

In the climactic third act of A Moon for the Misbegotten, Gonglewski and Wood circle each other with the wariness of tigers. There's a jaggedness to their interaction - as they alternately connect and disconnect - that's truly painful to watch.

Both Hogan and Tyrone are imprisoned in their own isolation, and in roles that they force themselves to play. But they're also trapped by cultural scripts that stigmatize sexual passion, and vilify men and women - but especially women - who succumb to it.

The redemption in Moon comes when, by the moon's metaphorical light, these two misbegotten souls finally see each other as they are. But Hogan's love, which today we might call codependency, is surely the greater. Tyrone is a doomed and anguished creature, but when he departs, Gonglewski's face crumples with a sense of loss that is both majestic and irrevocable.

A MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN Written by Eugene O'Neill; directed by Gerard J. Schubert; settings by Bob Phillips; costumes by Lisa L. Zinni; lighting by Erik A. Alberg. Presented by Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival.

The cast:

Josie Hogan - Grace Gonglewski

Phil Hogan - H. Michael Walls

James Tyrone Jr. - Greg Wood

Mike Hogan - Matt Pfieffer

T. Stedman Harder - Cameron McNary

Playing at: Labuda Center for the Performing Arts, 2755 Station Ave., Center Valley, Pa., through July 5. Tickets are $18 to $28. Information: 610-282-3192.

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