In the autobiographical Long Day's Journey Into Night, Eugene O'Neill's fictional mother admonishes through her morphine haze: "It's wrong to blame your brother. He can't help being what the past has made him." These words haunt the play's sequel A Moon for the Misbegotten. It is in this drama, the last of five consciously autobiographical works and his last play, that O'Neill finally allows his brother James confession and absolution, forgiveness from a woman as good as their beloved mother.
The ultimate expression of O'Neill's mature dramatic style, A Moon for the Misbegotten has an elegantly simple structure and is laid in an austere setting. Beyond the joking of old farmer Hogan and his daughter Josie, there is very little movement in the play and very little action. Gone is the heavy-handed, generalized dialogue which intrudes upon the earlier action-packed dramas that span years of time. Moon for the Misbegotten is pared down to its essentials--the language is true to each character and the entire play takes place from one afternoon through the following dawn.
For the production of this play which explores the past (if less completely and explicitly than Long Day's Journey Into Night), O'Neill left almost impossibly complete directions which specify the characteristics of the actors down to their nationality, and in certain cases, their eye color. Loeb director Kent Paul attempts to fulfill all those specifications. The leading actors are Irish. Josie really looks as if she is five feet eleven inches tall and weighs 180 pounds. And Paul has wisely adhered to O'Neill's original dramatic intentions, not only his staging details; his Loeb production captures the ineffable sadness of the play.
It is difficult to sustain interest in a drama that is all talk, and rarely literarily interesting talk, as it progresses from the comic repartee of the afternoon to the tragic confession of the night. Although the dialogue is convincing and engrossing, O'Neill rarely achieves eloquence. Like the farm girl, Josie, the audience is surprised to hear poetry: "the night I promised I'd give you has just begun, our night that'll be different from all the others, with a dawn that won't creep over dirty window panes but will wake in the sky like a promise of God's peace in the soul's dark sadness. Will you listen to me Jim! I must be a poet." But the sensitivity and experience of the Loeb cast imbue the language with a special grace nonetheless. If you turn your head from the stage for a moment and just listen, the effect of their voices is almost musical.
When A Moon for the Misbegotten finally reached Broadway in 1957, it did not enjoy a long run. It was not acclaimed in this country until beautifully produced off-Broadway in 1968. It may be that American theater of the time, unlike the Swedish stage which successfully adopted the play in 1953, could not accept a work so unaccustomedly slow-moving and uneventful. It is still difficult to maintain unflagging interest in the drama. But, despite several handicaps, the Loeb production, with good acting and careful pacing, manages to interest the audience consistently.
Bernard Frawley and Terrence Currier, playing Phil Hogan and James Tyrone, Jr., respectively, are the mainstays of the production. Both move comfortably in their difficult roles and both deliver their lines beautifully. Frawley is indeed an irascible "ugly little buck goat" of a father with a polished brogue and a fine comic sense. And Currier exudes the actor's charm of James Tyrone through a convincing alcoholic dissipation. The two minor characters, a younger son, Mike Hogan, and a rich Yankee neighbor, Harder are also excellent.
It is only Kathleen Perkins as Josie Hogan who is somewhat disappointing. Though she is as big as O'Neill requires and possesses as beautiful eyes as are specified, she does not have the vocal expertise and sense of timing of the other actors. Nor is she the unconventional beauty one might hope. (Almost any actress suffers in comparison to the off-Broadway Josie--Salome Jens.) Yet she interprets her role with the same sensitivity as her fellow actors construe theirs, and she is able to build a powerful and subtle tension with Currier in the scenes in which her genuine love for him is frustrated by his need to confess his drunken lascivious behavior at the time of his mother's death.
Josie, with the power invested in her part by O'Neill's personal anguish, gives him the forgiveness he so desperately seeks and allows him to sleep on her breast until the dawn, beautifully lit, glows with Jim's new-found peace. Absolved of his sin and thus freed from torturous guilt, he leaves Josie forever, able to die as he has died spiritually long before. The walking ghost passing from night to dawn is a familiar figure in O'Neill's work, but nowhere is he so effective a presence as in Moon for the Misbegotten.
The chief drawback of the Loeb effort is the lack of intimacy imposed by the proscenium stage and the large seating capacity. A play that depends so utterly upon characterization and dialogue needs a much more intimate setting in which the audience can feel close to the action and catch every nuance of speech and expression. From even an excellent seat it is impossible to catch very subtle changes in the actors' faces. The production would undoubtedly be more successful in the Loeb's Ex (its tiny experimental theater).
Despite this considerable handicap, the Loeb production is a powerful rendition of an immensely powerful play.