The news that the Williamstown Theatre Festival production of Eugene O’Neill’s “A Moon for the Misbegotten” was casting a trio of African-American actors to play the Hogan family at the center of the work received a great deal of press and speculation in the weeks leading up to the show’s official opening on August 8.
In truth, the casting choice works out just fine. It is quite easy to believe that an African-American family worked as tenant farmers on a Connecticut estate in the early 20th century, especially when the actor playing the father pulls out a lot of the clichés associated with the black Southern sharecroppers depicted in numerous Hollywood films. It’s easy to believe that the robust, earth-mother type oldest daughter would have attracted a lot of male attention in her time, no matter her race. What is actually harder to believe is that in 1923 the Bridgeport Police Department, where two of the family’s brothers supposedly work, was completely integrated. But that’s the only question that results from Long Wharf Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein’s decision to take a new look at the O’Neill classic at Williamstown.
What this change does make possible is a chance to see six-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald tackle the juicy role of Josie Hogan, the unmarried daughter of hard-drinking farmer Phil Hogan, who has remained on the farm while two of her brothers, with her help, have escaped out from under their father’s tyrannical rule. It also allows the audience to enjoy some great scenes and repartee between McDonald and the actor Glynn Turman who turns in an equally terrific performance as Phil. Whether the two are fighting each other tooth and nail or working together to humiliate an unctuous neighboring property owner who would love nothing more than to get rid of the Hogans, McDonald and Turman create genuine stage electricity as if they have engaged in such battles and engagements their entire adult lives. You couldn’t ask for more exciting theater than when the two of them share a scene.
Two factors limit the full success of Edelstein’s production. First the limited rehearsal time available for Williamstown productions has failed to meld all of the performances. Most notably, we don’t feel a deep familial relationship between Josie and her youngest brother Mike, played here by Howard W. Overshown, as she helps him take his turn escaping from the confines of the farm. Learning that Josie raised Mike since his mother died in childbirth, it is hard to fathom that a stronger emotional connection doesn’t exist, particularly on Mike’s part. Overshown says all the lines and engages McDonald, but one doesn’t feel the connection that explains why Josie is willing to take the chance to aid and abet Mike’s departure. At the same time, the part of the haughty neighboring landowner, T. Stedman Harder, performed by Aaron Costa Ganis, seems underplayed as well. There’s something just a bit too foppish about his performance that deprives his humiliation scene of a righteous irony. It feels like Josie and Phil are ultimately taking too much advantage of the foolish man.
That could also be the fault of the second factor involved: the presence of Audra McDonald. No matter what she seems to do, McDonald is always a singular force of nature, and no more so in the role of Josie. McDonald’s performance makes it easy to understand why Josie is the only person who can stand up to her father and how, despite his masculine blubber as the head of the household, he often quakes in fear if he pushes his daughter too far. It’s quite believable that Josie has a reputation for flirting (and more) with the local men yet summarily rejects them in a cold and ruthless manner. McDonald’s Josie is the irresistible force and immovable object all in one.
That formidable presence also upsets the balance in the central story of the play, the relationship between Josie and the property-owner from whom her father rents his farm, James Tyrone, first introduced in O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and based on O’Neill’s older brother, an alcoholic, womanizing actor who died at an early age. James is played by Will Swenson, McDonald’s husband in real life, but known primarily as an actor in large-scale Broadway musicals, such as “Hair,” “Les Miserables,” “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” and “Rock of Ages.” This is his first high profile attempt at a leading dramatic role, and though he acquits himself well, he pales next to McDonald. It doesn’t help that his James maintains all of Swenson’s good looks, especially his quite healthy looking body. There’s nothing emaciated about his appearance and his coughing is hardly consumptive. He’s nowhere near to the death that Josie predicts to her father that will come for his character in a few weeks.
Nor does Swenson have yet the acting tools available to him that McDonald does. He relies too heavily on an action in which his hands form a triangle on his forehead, to represent self-hate, disappointment, and grief. His drunken stumbling comes off as too actorish, though we do believe in his professions of love to Josie and particularly in his desire and need to rest his head against her bosom for solace and understanding.
As a result, the long night of the soul that Josie and Jamie spend together lacks the power to move us. We don’t get the sense that Jamie has received the understanding and redemption he has craved, nor do we feel Josie’s simultaneous feelings of great love and great loss that she has achieved by offering her bosom to this man she has loved for so many years.
What Edelstein’s production gets really right is the relationship between father and daughter, as they joust frequently with humor and occasionally with warmth over Phil’s various maneuverings to make a financial killing, especially when he suspects that Jamie will sell his estate to the neighbor, who would then force the Hogan’s out. He hatches a plot in which he will catch Jamie and Josie in bed and thus be able to blackmail his landlord into not selling the land. Of course, O’Neill makes sure that things are not as simple as they sound, as we learn that Phil’s ultimate plan is something more touching and humane.
While this production may lack the visceral impact of previous staged versions of this play, notably the famed Broadway revival with Coleen Dewhurst and Jason Robards, Jr., it does contain some other impressive features. Lee Savage has carefully and lovingly recreated and adapted the original stunning set design of legendary designer Ming Cho Lee, with its façade of the Hogan’s cabin with a transparent wall looking into the kitchen and Josie’s bedroom, all set in the midst of the rocky, sandy, tree-lined land on which Phil tries to farm. Jane Greenwood, who has designed over 100 Broadway productions including a previous visit to “A Moon for the Misbegotten,” has dressed the cast in breathtakingly appropriate costumes, from Hardman’s upper class puffery to Jamie’s designed to impress jacket to Josie’s special dress she dons for a supposed date with Jamie.
Jennifer Tipton’s lighting follows the progress of the afternoon through the evening and all night till dawn quite strikingly, reflecting the rising and lowering of the offstage moonlight. John Gromada’s sound design gives full voice to the characters and aids in the transition between scenes, although his decision to use the folk song “Shenandoah” for one of the scene changes seems produces an unwitting connotation of the South rather than rural Connecticut.
I wish I had been more moved by this production, although Edelstein’s staging and pacing did help me to catch more of O’Neill’s clever plotting, especially as how it related to Josie and Phil. Edelstein also allows the humor in the play to rise naturally out from the characters and their dialogue, thereby proving wrong O’Neill’s claim that he could not write comedy. Admittedly, “A Moon for the Misbegotten” is a serious drama, but there are decent moments of laughter to be had, and a sense of joy in what Josie has learned and accomplished by the end of the play.
“A Moon for the Misbegotten” runs through August 23 at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. For information and tickets, call the Box Office at 413.597.3400 or visit the theater’s website at www.wtfestival.org.