The late plays of Eugene O’Neill are his best, even when they seem erratic and forced. But their theatrical power — their ability to sweep an audience up in the lives of the people on stage — are undeniable.
That’s the case with “A Moon for the Misbegotten,” now receiving a handsome, well-acted production from Kansas City Actors Theatre.
Four years ago, KCAT staged a beautifully realized production of O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” a searing portrait of a family suffering from guilt, shame and drug addiction. The Tyrones were a fictionalized version of O’Neill’s own family — a patriarch who found wealth and popularity on the stage, an alcoholic son, another with consumption and a long-suffering wife addicted to morphine.
“Long Day’s Journey” is rightfully considered a masterpiece — an iconic American tragedy as powerful today as it was when it was first seen decades ago.
“A Moon for the Misbegotten” can be considered a sequel to “Long Day’s Journey,” although its tone is quite different. Here we again encounter James Tyrone Jr, the elder brother of “Long Day’s Journey.” Jim is in decline, a chronic alcoholic who is now the landlord of Connecticut farmland he inherited. He can be charming, occasionally witty, but when seen approaching a tenant farmer’s shanty moves “like a dead man walking slow behind his own coffin,” as one character puts it.
This play is, among other things, O’Neill’s attempt to complete the tragic arc of “Long Day’s Journey.” It’s the story of a doomed man’s quest for a bit of redemption, a fleeting moment of grace.
But it’s more than that. It’s also a love story like no other, a poignant depiction of a spiritual bond between James and the tough-but-vulnerable Josie Hogan, the tenant farmer’s daughter. And beyond that, it’s a comedy that devotes considerable time to the machinations of Josie’s father, the garrulous pig farmer Phil Hogan, and his convoluted scheme to make sure that Jim Tyrone honors his pledge to never sell the the land.
Director Mark Robbins balances the comic and tragic elements simply by honoring them equally. I’ve seen other productions of this play, but never one in which the sorrow and laughter were equally effective. Robbins assembled a superior cast and the actors perform this challenging material with total commitment.
Brian Paulette steps once again into the shoes of Jim Tyrone, whose abiding, unspoken love for Josie draws him back to Hogan’s shanty. Paulette approaches the role with a light touch, projecting an image of Jim as a frivolous playboy until, late in the evening under a full moon, his honest liquor-fueled emotions come pouring out.
Ashley Pankow’s take on Josie is compelling — unique and magnetic. As the show progresses, her performance becomes increasingly complex and specific. Let it be said that Pankow is far from O’Neill’s description of Josie of a mountainous, physically intimidating woman. But Pankow compensates with inner heat — as if to say Josie’s threats and ability to inflict violence are contained in small but potentially explosive package.
Victor Raider-Wexler delivers some of his best work as Hogan, an Irishman given to blarney, flattery, manipulative lies and comic intimidation. The beautiful thing about his performance, and the show generally, is its great clarity. O’Neill wrote long, talky scenes that could easily lead to eyes glazing over in the audience. That didn’t happen on opening night. Credit Robbins and his actors.
Raider-Wexler also stars in what amounts to a mini-play within a play about a dispute over a broken fence that allows Hogan’s pigs to wallow in an ice pond on the adjacent property, owned by Standard Oil heir T. Stedman Harder (an effective Chris Roady). A story that was told in brief in “Long Day’s Journey” is here fleshed out in a scene that exists purely as comic relief. Raider-Wexler plays Hogan’s faux outrage straight, making the episode all the more amusing.
And there’s another character — Mike Hogan, Josie’s younger brother, who in the first scene bolts from the farm because he can’t tolerate his father’s slave-driving any longer. Charlie Spillers delivers a crisply executed performance before disappearing from the stage.
O’Neill’s play, set in the 1920s and written in the ‘40s, shows its age in some ways. O’Neill was fond of long-winded exposition. And at times the Irish brogues employed by Pankow and Raider-Wexler could have been dialed down a bit. Even so, the show invites reflection on the nature of love and relationships, which feels especially timely now in the #MeToo movement.
Josie pretends to be sexually available when she really isn’t, using the deception as sort of shield until she finds a man she really loves — which, of course, would be Jim Tyrone. Tyrone, on the other hand, knows exactly what a user and abuser he’s been with his never-ending succession of “Broadway tarts” and can’t bring himself to take advantage of the vulnerable Josie because he sees in her an honesty and purity that draws him like a supplicant to the light.
In the end, their love can exist only on a spiritual level. And O’Neill strongly suggests that maybe that’s the only kind that counts. Ultimately, he leaves it to the viewers to decide.
“A Moon for the Misbegotten” runs through Sept. 30 at City Stage in Union Station. Call 816-235-6222 or go to www.kcactors.org.