A Moon for the Miscast

Eugene O'Neill's emotionally powerful drama lacks its misbegotten heroine

Director Edward Hall's new production of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire recently opened at New York's Roundabout Theater Co. with Natasha Richardson in the role of Southern basket case -- sorry, belle -- Blanche DuBois and John C. Reilly as stage history's most prominent alpha dog, Stanley Kowalski. In an attempt to pry Stanley away, once and for all, from the character's longstanding association with Marlon Brando, who originated the role on Broadway in 1947, Hall cast against type. The critics varied in their responses to the show, but on one count they were nearly unanimous: Reilly, a wheyfaced, likable lunk of an actor, more naturally suited to playing parts like Roxie Hart's cuckolded husband Amos in the movie version of Chicago than the predatory male of Streetcar, has nothing of the raw power of Brando. "Reilly goes through the motions of sexual pleasuring, but he gives off hardly a whiff of sexuality," said The New Yorker's John Lahr. Ben Brantley of The New York Timesconcurred: "Mr. Reilly seems neither threatening nor -- how to put this? -- erotically overwhelming."

The problem isn't in the yawning chasm separating Reilly's and Brando's interpretations of the role. Some critics even appreciated the ambiguous quality Reilly brought to the part. But because Williams' drama derives its animal force from the highly charged sexual power games played between Blanche and Stanley, Hall's casting simply seemed wrong. "In changing the essential nature of the character," wrote Lahr, "Hall inevitably lowers the stakes and throws the play weirdly off-kilter."

Also premiering in 1947 in the altogether less glamorous locale of Columbus, Ohio, Eugene O'Neill's play A Moon for the Misbegotten, in revival at ACT, presents similar casting challenges. Set in 1923, this part farce, part sentimental play revolves around a family of poor Irish immigrant farmers living in Connecticut. When threatened with eviction, farmer Phil Hogan and his daughter Josie concoct a plot to save the old homestead from the clutches of a potential buyer by blackmailing their supposedly double-crossing drunkard of a landlord, James Tyrone Jr.

Powerhouse Down: Robin Weigert, as 
Josie, is too slim and pretty to play "an ugly, 
overgrown lump of a woman."
Kevin Berne
Powerhouse Down: Robin Weigert, as Josie, is too slim and pretty to play "an ugly, overgrown lump of a woman."

Moon is undoubtedly a difficult work to stage. It lacks the drug-addled family fights that fuel its more famous prequel, A Long Day's Journey Into Night; instead, the action explores -- at first playfully, and then with a mounting sense of futility and desolation -- the abrupt and barren courtship of Josie and Tyrone, a pair about as far from star-crossed as lovers can be. During the long third act that takes place over the course of one moonlit September night, Josie essentially gives up all hope of ever having a real relationship, and as for Tyrone, well, he gave up long before the houselights went down. It's not the sort of plot that keeps audiences on the edges of their seats. Yet for all its aimlessness, this play about forgiveness and spiritual bonding possesses considerable emotional power. Bringing it off without recourse to melodrama or sentimentality demands not only performances of the utmost subtlety, but also extremely careful casting.

Laird Williamson (who directed Long Day's Journey for ACT in 1999) has assembled a charismatic, intelligent lineup of actors. We don't tend to think of O'Neill as having much of a sense of humor, but Raye Birk's peppery farmer Hogan demonstrates just how funny O'Neill can be. Like Journey, Moonis based on O'Neill's own family. The playwright's elder brother, James O'Neill Jr., died of alcoholism in November 1923, and by the time we meet Tyrone on the Hogans' farm, the character has practically drunk himself into nonexistence. There's no fight left in him as he sinks lower and lower into a state of alcoholic obliteration and wretched guilt blurrily connected with the death of his mother. With two dark smudges for eyes (self-consciously masked under a dapper trilby in his early scenes), Marco Barricelli brings unequivocal sadness to the role. In one particularly poignant scene, for instance, we watch as he pitifully tries to light a cigarette on the Hogans' run-down porch. It takes him three attempts.

While Barricelli more or less sustains our interest in his character's permanently inebriated condition, Robin Weigert makes the most of the emotional range of hers. Weigert's Josie is many things: In the mostly comedic first and second acts, she flails about the stage, flaunting her wit and fiery temper like a female tag-team wrestler crossed with Lenny Bruce. As the play progresses and her mood darkens in sync with the changing phases of the moon, she's alternately girlish, anguished, proud, angry, saintly, and submissive. One thing Weigert definitely isn't, though, is misbegotten, and that's where ACT's production comes apart.

As described in O'Neill's typically punctilious stage directions, Josie is "so oversize for a woman that she is almost a freak." Josie herself is painfully aware of how she looks and makes constant reference to her appearance. "I'm an ugly, overgrown lump of a woman," she says to her father in Act One, "and the men that want me are no better than stupid bulls." But Weigert, though tallish, is slim and exceedingly pretty, despite her homespun get-up. Back in 1947, when some theater folks expressed doubts over the casting of Mary Welsh as Josie in the original production of the play, O'Neill insisted that the actor possessed all the right "emotional qualities." Weigert attempts to inject testosterone into the role by lumbering about the stage shoulders first and sitting mannishly with her legs apart. Yet for all her "emotional qualities," she lacks the overwhelming physical presence necessary to make sense of the odd, sad relationship between Josie and Tyrone -- a relationship that demands Josie's transformation into a giant Earth Mother embracing Tyrone's helpless little-boy-lost in her strong, loving arms.

In a play with neither climax nor real dramatic drive, the spiritual connection between Josie and Tyrone is fundamental. The success of O'Neill's drama depends upon our belief in Josie as a primeval force capable of standing in for all the lost mothers in the writer's dramatic (and personal) universe and sending Tyrone (and, by implication, O'Neill's brother) to his final resting place in peace. The second half of Moonis full of mystical promise: The chaotic atmosphere of Robert Mark Morgan's ramshackle barnyard of a set becomes a symbol of mental as well as physical decrepitude. Weigert and Barricelli's game of emotional hide-and-seek is heightened by Garth Hemphill's nighttime soundscape and the slow movement of lighting designer Don Darnutzer's huge, pendulous moon across the sky.

But as the big, broad-shouldered Barricelli repeatedly throws himself upon Weigert's comparatively small frame, it's hard to believe he'll find true salvation there. Underplaying the importance of Josie's physicality "inevitably lowers the stakes and throws the play weirdly off-kilter."

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