The Bottle and the Void

Watching a Eugene O'Neill play-especially one of his later, greater meditations on the rotten, lousy nature of life-is like drinking the kind of whiskey that comes from an American Eagle decanter wearing a cloak of dust 20 years thick. At first it burns like the fires of hell. But the more you get down, the smoother it seems, and soon you realize you've just been kicked by a recently gelded stallion.

In other words, O'Neill should be served in great, ferocious gulps. His plays are so long, wordy and meandering that any attempt by a director to soft-pedal the material or gimmick it up is doomed to failure. Do it as he wrote it, as flawed and fatalistic as it may be, or don't do it at all.

After a stuttering early attempt to amplify O'Neill's humor, director Jessica Kubzansky's A Moon for the Misbegotten takes off in a production that captures O'Neill's contradictory view of existence-namely, that life is all raging glory when it's not all sodden self-pity.

Less a great play about great ideas, A Moon for the Misbegotten is a great play about greatly flawed people-and the most flawed person of all is the playwright, whose own sadness and suffering is more palpable than that of his characters. Through the painful struggle of his two main characters, O'Neill reveals the allure of romance and the fatalistic hopelessness that such a dream can't help but betray.

The Laguna Playhouse bills this production as a bittersweet romance. That this production captures an occasional hint of sweetness is an achievement. The play is set on the rocky farm tilled by Phil Hogan (Sean G. Griffin) and his daughter, Josie (Marjory Graue). Most productions emphasize the dilapidated farmhouse, the realm of female power; in highlighting the land around the house, Dwight Richard Odle's evocative design reflects something else. Josie's strength isn't limited to the house; she is limitless, as enduring, strong and honest as the land itself.

Her father, on the other hand, is a hard-drinking, swearing pig farmer who has just chased away his third son, the devout Catholic Mike. Josie is harder to scare off. She stays with her father, and while she is the object of his derision, she is also the glue in his fragile life.

At the center of the play is a game: the struggle between father and daughter to define Josie's long-standing "affair" with James Tyrone Jr., the Broadway actor and playboy whose family owns the farm. Josie and Jim have never actually had an affair, a fact that is lost on the elder Hogan; he is convinced that Josie ultimately will trap Tyrone into marrying her. Josie counters that while she is the town slut, she's no match for the Broadway tarts Tyrone is used to; she's merely "an ugly, overgrown lump of a woman." But the instant Tyrone walks onstage, we sense the connection between the two, the kind of repelling and attracting currents that can't be masked by bluster and insults.

Tyrone is modeled after O'Neill's younger brother, James, who died of alcoholic consumption-that would be after their morphine-addict mother died in a sanatorium. Like James, Tyrone is a playboy lost in an alcoholic haze. Shattered by his mother's death a year before and racked by the guilt he feels over his behavior in her final days, he has retreated to the family's old homestead to drink himself to death. The rest of this play is truly a battle to save Tyrone's soul and in the process give Josie something to live for-other than the backbreaking labor on the farm.

Acting is crucial in any play, perhaps more so in this one. The three leads contribute stellar efforts (casting director Julia Flores deserves her own round of applause). Sean G. Griffin looks and sounds like he just arrived from County Cork. He's also oddly endearing, even when he's a drunken, lying bastard. Philip Earl Johnson's Tyrone is similarly detailed. We can almost smell his decay. Even when he resorts to Broadway showmanship, his character's suffering is never too far below the surface. His character is beat-he knows it, the people in his life know it, and the audience knows it.

Perhaps Johnson's best feat, however, is that Tyrone is just as easy to despise for his self-pity as he is to care about when we realize that, for this character in this play, there is no other hope but the grave.

Finally, Graue's Josie possesses the earthiness and dignity needed to make her character work. One of the more unforgiving roles ever scripted for an actress (in stage directions, O'Neill calls her a misshapen freak, and she's referred to as a cow and a hog throughout the play), Josie requires an actress with physical presence to convey great strength and the looks to make the romance work. Most important, she's eloquent enough, even in her earthiness, to make her character Tyrone's judge and savior.

Such performances allow the O'Neill of the mid-20th century to resolve the contradictions his play raises in the late-20th century. We should hate the sexual politics of A Moon for the Misbegotten-the blustering men, the scorned but loyal woman-but we find ourselves helplessly rooting for everything to work out. The men curse, drink, play and abuse their women; the women pick up the men, nurse them to health, and keep society from disintegrating into drinking, cursing, playing. In therapeutic circles, Josie might be seen as a weak-willed enabler whose identity stems from nothing more than the men in her life. But these performances allow O'Neill's poetic genius to shine through. It turns out that the great strength of woman-that vast, mysterious reservoir of female myth and substance-is somehow captured amid this rather old-fashioned gender politicking, a theme manifested by the fact that the most enduring feminine symbol of all, the moon, dwarfs this set.

But ultimately, Tyrone is denied the Woman-along with hope and life. Josie realizes that there really is nothing left for him but the forgiveness granted the dead. And thus the source of tears in A Moon for the Misbegotten. They're not the sappy tears of forced melodrama, the kind of currency so often passed along as genuine emotion in mediocre plays by mediocre playwrights. They're great, heaving sobs of anguish, of the playwright lamenting his lost soul, his lost brother, and by extension, the aching ones whose wounds cannot be nursed, every hung-up person in the universe. But unlike Bob Dylan's hunted and haunted, there are no chimes of freedom flashing for O'Neill and his ghosts. There's only the mournful sound of funeral bells, sickly dawns creeping through dirty windowpanes, the forlorn rags of growing old, the bottle and then the void.

A Moon for the Misbegotten at the Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Rd., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-ARTS. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m. Through May 16. $19-$38.


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