in Slow Motion
By Ralph Hammann
Moon for the Misbegotten
Eugene O’Neill, Directed by Eric Peterson
Theatre Company at Bennington Center for the Arts, Bennington,
Vt., through Oct. 20
Oldcastle brings to a close its dismal 30th-anniversary season
with a surprise: a passable production. And while passable
is insufficient for this great play, at least some of the
most heartfelt and poetic dialogue that O’Neill ever wrote
emerges fairly unscathed.
In this play about the misdirected love of a young Amazonian
Irish woman who thinks herself misbegotten, and the misguided
plans of her intemperate leprechaun of a father, the action
moves from rough comedy to delicate pathos within a dramatic
time frame of about 18 hours. Josie Hogan (Katrina Ferguson),
tall and broad, is a sort of earth mother who lives on a rocky,
infertile farm and has a reputation for enormous sexual prowess.
Her father, Phil (Robert Zanfini), is a bootlegger who raises
pigs and schemes to ensure his and Josie’s future. The newest
ploy involves hitching his and Josie’s happiness to the uncertain
finances of their landlord, James Tyrone Jr. (Richard Howe),
a hard-drinking, self-loathing middle-aged playboy.
Matters begin poorly (and, for some dumb reason, in the aisles),
as Josie and Phil banter with too much good-natured joviality
where there should be gruff sarcasm. The only way these two
can express their love for each other is obliquely, and to
have the actors josh where they should jostle depletes them
of their complexity and the play’s resolution of its kick.
Zanfini, in particular, speaks with little or no subtext and
fails to connect meaningfully with anyone or thing save the
stage floor, about which he stomps to and fro without much
motivation. Perhaps he is taking his cues from Josie’s insults
that he is a billy goat. At least he has energy and moves
matters along at a quick clip—and his rant about pigs and
fences is wonderfully delivered.
James Tyrone is not the role that Richard Howe was born to
play. Where Tyrone is a rake with a touch of the poet, Howe
is more of a shovel with a touch of the shoe salesman. Moreover,
Howe’s propensity to act from his lips, with a lead performance
from the lower lip, has never been worse. It protrudes then
curls in on itself, then puckers, twists and contorts into
retreat only to advance for further assaults on the language
and strangleholds on the emotions. Such gymnastic grimacing
might work well in fishbowls or for villains such as Howe
played well in The Little Foxes, but it’s not the stuff
of poetic realism.
Tyrone’s romantic scenes with Josie are disastrous in ways
that extend well beyond his lips. An absence of chemistry
results in unmotivated couplings, and rather than watch the
characters awkwardly stumble into each other’s arms, we behold
the embarrassing sight of actors clumsily and numbly following
stage directions. Thus the line “It’s in your kisses” is completely
unbelievable as an explanation of why Tyrone can’t hide his
feelings for Josie.
Despite this, Howe does provide several minutes of private
revelation—when describing Tyrone’s mother, for example—that
are indeed moving and may represent the best work he has ever
Given her costars’ shortcomings, Ferguson fares best when
going inwardly and exploring Josie’s role as earth mother
to Tyrone. She delivers O’Neill’s poignant lines sincerely
and allows them to touch us without pushing for the effect.
While there are places where Josie’s pain could be much more
acutely revealed, it is a respectable performance, easily
the best that I’ve seen at Oldcastle in many moons.
Kenneth Mooney’s set is striking, but there needs to be more
of a sense of rocky outcroppings, and I wish he’d found a
way to project the important moon on the rear skydrop rather
than on a side drop that, resembling a sail, was more suggestive
of O’Neill’s sea plays. The hung facade of the Hogan shanty
sorely needs to be dropped down a bit more to touch the floor,
where it could be latched. Instead it floats distractingly,
and defeats the image of a shack that is on the verge of collapse.
It is particularly laughable when Howe pushes Ferguson into
it. But it is no less laughable than director Eric Peterson’s
amateurishly overdone cameo as a wealthy neighbor.
Characters’ inebriation, often a critical part of O’Neill’s
plays, is handled too deliberately and safely with just enough
hints of it to make one want to seek solace at a tavern after
the show. Perhaps it was to such an establishment that Peterson
fled instead of taking his curtain call on opening night.
It was important to O’Neill that the actors speak the lines
of this play with rich Irish brogues. At Oldcastle, however,
accents get dropped like inconvenient luggage. As a result,
much of the lilting music of the dialogue falls flat. The
rest falls under the loony eclipse of Zanfini’s stomping feet.