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A CurtainUp Phildelphia Review
A Moon for the Misbegotten

No, I wouldn't think it, but my motto in life is never trust anyone too far, not even myself. — Hogan
Angela Smith and Michael P. Toner (Photo credit: Mark Garvin)
With its successful populist mission, the Walnut Street Theatre's mainstage regularly plays to full houses. But tucked away upstairs in a small performance space is the kind of drama that emerged from Eugene O'Neill's defiant assault on the superficiality of the stage of his day. A Moon for the Misbegotten, playing at the Independence Studio on 3 is a product of his rebellion.

In 1941, coping with the insidious onset of Parkinson's, which would be diagnosed as he completed the first draft of this his last play, O'Neill painfully extruded A Moon for the Misbegotten from his tortured soul. He finished the draft a month after the attack on Pearl Harbor with blackout curtains on his windows, and completed the final draft in 1943.

Things are not always what they seem in this winding tale of family, posturing, scheming, drinking, and love. Wry Irish humor evident in the first half gives way to a play of tragic scope as, through dramatic fiction, O'Neill revisits his ruinous real-life family issues and tries to expiate his brother's sins.

Old fashioned attention to detail shows in Andrew Thompson's set of a dilapidated house on a Connecticut tenant farm in the 20s, with its rusty door hinges and scattered weeds that spring up at the edges of rocks. J. Dominic Chacon's atmospheric and evocative lighting design enhances the poetic realism.

The cast is wonderful all around. Anthony Lawton, with outsize talent, does justice by overwrought James Tyrone, Jr., who covers up his sick soul with ebullience and bonded bourbon. And although not "the big ugly hulk" the role of Josie Hogan calls for, Angela Smith more than holds her own as a smartass Irish farm girl. Josie's bold comedic repartee with her father sets up and fleshes out the story. And Jamison Foreman, playing two supporting roles, is so different as his second character in jodhpurs that he's unrecognizable.

Last but not least, there's the role of Phil Hogan, the father. O'Neill wasn't happy with the actor who played Hogan in the play's premiere in 1947. But no doubt he would have loved this production's Hogan. It's as if he wrote the part for Michael Toner, who understands that while the character is funny and a drinker, he's no lightweight. Toner plays him cantankerous and mean, but charming when he wants to be. And Michael's skill with Irish brogue fits the role like a glove.

This worthy production richly rewards audience attention. Yet director Kate Galvin's overall approach to the work appears tempered. Characters' angry reactions come across more gestural than forceful in situations where more explosive crescendos would better offset the quieter parts.

Convenient deceptions that cover heartbreak and guilt eventually get called out. More tender than some of O'Neill's works, A Moon for the Misbegotten grants two people who are publicly brash, but suffer in secret, poetic license to emerge from the darkness of their lives, reveal truths, and find a kind of absolution and solace for one moonlit night.

This beautiful, but long, and long-winded play isn't a breeze for the cast to tackle. And there's a long row to hoe ahead: From February into March the show will travel to various locations in New England, then nip out to Michigan and Indiana, and back to Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey before heading south to Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. Grant them strength for the challenging trip!

For more about O'Neill and other reviews of his plays, see Curtainup's O'Neill Backgrounder
A Moon for the Misbegotten by Eugene O'Neill
Directed by Kate Galvin
Cast: Angela Smith, Jamison Foreman, Michael P. Toner, Anthony Lawton
Scenic Design: Andrew Thompson
Lighting Design: J. Dominic Chacon
Costume Design: Julia Poiesz
Sound Design: Cory Neale
2 hours and 30 minutes including one 15 minute intermission
January 14- February 7, 2016
Reviewed by Kathryn Osenlund based on 01/14/16 performance. Independence Studio on 3. Walnut Street Theatre, Philadelphia
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