A Moon for the Misbegotten

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Editorial Review

Hodsoll shines in half-full 'Moon for the Misbegotten'

By Jane Horwitz
Thursday, Sept. 29, 2011

The Heritage-O'Neill Theatre Company, based in Silver Spring, claims a special niche in its dedication to the works of Eugene O'Neill and other giants of 20th-century American stage literature.

Producing Artistic Director Karey Faulkner, who founded the troupe in 2003, writes in the program notes for "A Moon for the Misbegotten" that she wants the production to jump "off the cliff into a sea of huge, vast, and raw emotions with nothing but Mr. O'Neill's words. . . ." Those words, she continues, will "take an actor, a reader, and an audience everywhere they need to go."

True enough, but a director also needs a cast with the depth of technique to carry off such a soul-baring work of love and loss as O'Neill's late play. "A Moon for the Misbegotten" was copyrighted in 1945 but not published until 1952, and it did not have its New York premiere until 1957. There have been four Broadway productions since - the most legendary in 1973, starring Colleen Dewhurst and Jason Robards.

Heritage-O'Neill's staging exhibits more yearning to embody those aforesaid big emotions than actual success in creating them, let alone plumbing their depths. Only actress Lisa Hodsoll comes close - close, indeed - to making the character of Josie Hogan fully inhabit the stage.

The time is 1923 and the place a rocky Connecticut tenant farm run by stereotypical Irish rogue Phil Hogan and his daughter Josie, age 28. In his stage directions, O'Neill describes Josie as "almost a freak - five feet eleven in her stockings and weighs around one hundred and eighty." Few actresses meet those physical requirements, and the summit they must truly scale is the spiritual size of O'Neill's Josie. How do you play a galumphing girl-woman who poses as a slut while secretly nursing a hopeless love?

Hodsoll tore up the place last season as a 21st-century lost soul in Factory 449's production of "Magnificent Waste" by Caridad Svich. Her Josie has magnificent potential, too, but she's working with a cast that can't match her technique.

"A Moon for the Misbegotten" is deemed a kind of sequel to O'Neill's autobiographical masterpiece of family implosion, "Long Day's Journey Into Night," which had its premiere in 1956, after his death. (He died in 1953).

The flawed man Josie loves is James Tyrone Jr., or Jim, an alcoholic actor and the wayward son of the patriarch in "Long Day's Journey." He's based on the playwright's older brother. The Hogans are tenant farmers on the Tyrones' land.

It is the unlikely love between Josie and Jim, finally expressed during Jim's whiskey-fueled overnight visit, that is the play's centerpiece, and which provides its brief sparks of happiness and redemption before the impossibility of a life together brings on the bittersweet finale.

As the alcoholic Jim, Sean Coe is alternately angry, sad, drunk, aggressive, amorous and apologetic at all the right moments in the script, but his transitions are not of a piece. Coe seems an inward-focused actor, and the theatrical magic and flare needed to weave Jim's contradictory moments into one complex character are lacking. Jamie's climactic confession to Josie in Act 3, about bringing his dead mother's body home by train and spending the trip carousing with a prostitute, has little palpable sense of self-loathing or grief.

Nor is Dexter Hamlett as Josie's conniving dad, Phil, comfortable in his role, though he's an affable stage presence. He's too young, first of all, and not able to shift between Phil's bluster and his affection and concern for Josie.

As Josie, Hodsoll movingly comforts and absolves Jim as dawn approaches and they part ways, her to a spinster's life with her father, and Jim perhaps to an early alcoholic demise. But Hodsoll is in a different production than are her colleagues. One wants to see her in the role again.

Heritage-O'Neill performs in the onetime home of the Round House Theatre, off Randolph Road near the intersection with Viers Mill in Silver Spring. The space is somewhat worn but has fine acoustics and sightlines. The troupe's resident designer, Benjamin Fan, has created a properly ramshackle bungalow facade for Josie and her dad's home, complete with a wide porch and a straw-and-boulder-strewn yard.

Fan's lighting, however, is the best design element. It gracefully guides us through the unfolding hours of the play, from noon of one day through dawn of the next, and as well through O'Neill's tempest of feeling.