AISLE SAY Berkshires


by Eugene O’Neill
Directed by Gordon Edelstein
starring Audra McDonald, Will Swenson and Glynn Turman

at Williamstown Theatre Festival until August 23

Reviewed by Joel Greenberg


A Moon for the Misbegotten, Eugene O’Neill’s epitaph to his older brother, is playing at the Williamstown Theatre Festival until August 23 and stars Audra McDonald and Will Swenson.

The play is set on a farm in Connecticut, 1923, and the story focuses on James Tyrone, the older brother in O’Neill’s masterwork, Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Though it isn’t necessary to know this play, it certainly adds weight and measure to “A Moon…” if you do. In “Long Day’s Journey…” James, more often referred to as Jamie, is revealed as the dissolute older brother of Edmund, O’Neill’s surrogate, and in that play he is also the truth-teller, the jaded and disillusioned young man condemned to see the world, and his family, as they really are. He brooks no euphemisms or idealized nostalgia. And when we meet him in “A Moon…”, it is eleven years later. His parents have died and his younger brother has moved away, married and has a child. James is without family and without hope. We also meet Josie Hogan and her father, Phil, tenant farmers on Tyrone’s estate. She is reputed to be the village slut and he is a hard-drinking schemer who does his best to help his daughter find happiness.


As in all of O’Neill’s plays, themes of deceit, unmasking illusion by revealing core truths and the desperate search for redemption compel and torment the central characters. And the tragedy of the characters’ lives, loves and longings weave together so that strands are interlocked, with one complicating the others. Unlike most of his major plays, however, “A Moon…” offers redemption, though it comes at the cost of sacrificing love by James Tyrone and is offered, in spite of that cost, by Josie Hogan. Both are freed from the agony of their tortured feelings, but neither will have the other for comfort or solace.


O’Neill’s plays demand first-rate performances and equally striking design elements. This production certainly boasts a marquee-caliber of artists: scenic design by Ming Cho Lee (restored and adapted by Lee Savage), costume design by Jane Greenwood, lighting design by Jennifer Tipton and sound design by John Gromada. The world created on the stage is both credible and near mythic. So, too, is the text, especially in the production’s second half. Gordon Edelstein directs the play for the fourth time and McDonald notes that “Edelstein wanted to do the play with her with an eye on a likely New York production.”


No less striking than the designs are the performances, though the operatic demands of the text never quite reach the heights or depths of pain and sorrow required to allow the audience its own catharsis. And the lack is more to do with casting than it is with any actor’s shortcomings. Audra McDonald is a powerful stage presence, but the play’s oft-repeated references to Josie’s bulk and heft and downright awkwardness is not what this actor brings to her work. And no amount of lugging and shoving changes that. Neither can she pass as the local whore, and her final admission about her virginity only underlines what we knew and felt from her first scene. Swenson makes an impressive entrance, but very soon after that the character’s despair and self-loathing is never credible. Swenson, not unlike McDonald, brings an intelligence and rootedness to the stage that reminds us he is not, at heart, who and what he is playing at.


“A Moon for the Misbegotten” is a bold programming choice for the WTF. It is hardly the stuff of summer theatre fare and it has been approached with the talent and integrity that any play, let alone an O’Neill opus, deserves and receives.



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