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Poetry in Slow Motion

By Ralph Hammann

A Moon for the Misbegotten
By Eugene O’Neill, Directed by Eric Peterson

Oldcastle 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 done.

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.

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