Arden’s Luminous ‘Moon’
By Eugene O’Neill
Directed by Matt Pfeiffer
Arden Theatre Company, Philadelphia
Feb. 6-27, 2011
If you need a reminder of why Eugene O’Neill was, is and always will be one of America’s greatest playwrights, catch the current production of “A Moon For the Misbegotten” at the Arden Theatre. The raw psychological truths may be from a long-forgotten, tortured, haunted O’Neillean world, but the pathos is eternal.
Grace Gonglewski plays Josie, a hard-talking, big-hearted only daughter of the Hogan family who raises her brothers and takes care of her widowed father, Phil (a boozing cur if there ever was one). She is literally half of the muscle that keeps their dilapidated pig farm in Connecticut going, not to mention her family‘s heart.
The land is owned by James Tyrone Jr. (very late of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night“) the drunken, whoring, washed-up actor who is, as much as he can tell, in love with Josie. She definitely is with him, but likes the courting game more than the real thing. Meanwhile, she perpetuates a false slutty image so she can hold all of the cards. She makes no public or personal apologies for her ways, much like her father.
When the is farm being sold out from under them by a rich neighbor, her world is threatened, not to mention her feelings for Tyrone. Being from O’Neill, the real drama is the exposition in the relationships, old-world Irish mores and the bitter disappointments that are kept at bay by a sea of booze—stage specters speaking the poetic realism of O’Neill’s life.
After so many celebrated productions of “Moon” over the years, it is hard to imagine one as finely crafted as this. The direction by Matt Pfeiffer shows a complete understanding of what makes O’Neill work. Everything from the pacing of the cyclonic dialogue, to the character humor, to the physiology of the actors is so well executed with this cast. Matt Saunders’ set is sharp, understated realism, and Thom Weaver’s lighting design sets the bleakly poetic moods.
This ensemble is top drawer from start to finish, handling all of the symphonic pathos. H. Michael Walls as the dad is a torrent of Irish cultural touchstones, scabrous humor and heartfelt doubts masked with brio. Eric Hissom’s Tyrone is a full-tilt and subtle portrayal, his soused rants visceral and his wet-brain shakes authentic. The three leads very convincingly float the effects of drinking in their speech and movement.
In the supporting roles, Sean Lally makes the most of his one scene as the brother who leaves, and Allen Radway provides on-the-chin comic relief as the rich neighbor, handily dispatched by father and daughter, riding crop and all.
Gonglewski is so powerful inside this character. Whether she is off-handedly wielding an ax, reconciling her father’s grief or filling in added insight to O’Neill’s madonna-whore view of women, there is not a false note here. A truly distinguished and moving performance.