Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
Also see Cameron's review of The Hard Problem
Set in 1923 Connecticut, A Moon for the Misbegotten is the story of tough-as-nails tenant farmer Phil Hogan (Michael P. Toner) and his feisty but hardworking daughter Josie (Angela Smith). The hardscrabble pair exchange verbal and physical jabs, but their love for each other is unmistakable. Jim Tyrone (Anthony Lawton) owns the farmland, but is clearly out of place in his hometown. A self-proclaimed Broadway ham, gad about town, and raging alcoholic, Jim has returned home to wait for his recently deceased mother's estate to be settled. There is some question about whether Jim may sell the farm to the Hogans' wealthy neighbor T. Stedman Harder (Jamison Foreman), but like most O'Neill plays the real drama is in the relationships and emotional revelations of the characters. In particular, the complex affection between Josie and Jim which slowly unfolds beneath the moonlight.
Toner energetically embodies the hard-headed and scheming Phil Hogan. His emotional development over the course of the play and his banter with Lawton feel authentic, but the dialogue between Toner and Smith is forced and awkward. Smith is in the difficult position of playing against type: the play explicitly calls for Josie to be an oversized homely woman, but Smith is slender, beautiful and young. This makes some of the lines humorously jarring (her large hands and breasts are referenced repeatedly), but more importantly it is difficult to embrace her sense of frustration and despair when it seems clear that Josie could simply take off her oversized dress, let down her hair and land a job on a Broadway chorus line herself. There are definitely scenes in the emotionally charged second act where all of that drops away and Smith's performance shines through.
Lawton gives a powerful but nuanced performance, skillfully handling Jim's alcohol-induced mood swings and painful internal struggles. This character is the same James Tyrone Jr. who appears in O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night, now away from his family but as screwed up as ever. If you are a fan of Long Day's Journey Into Night but have never seen A Moon for the Misbegotten, go buy your tickets now.
Andrew Thompson's set design is wrong for the space at Walnut Street's Independence Studio. The beautifully constructed facade of the Hogan homestead takes up 75% of the stage area even though only a few minutes of the play take place inside. As a result, the actors seem uncomfortably squashed in the corner for much of the night. Perhaps the set will be more appropriate at other locations as this productions tours, but in this space a single door frame representing the house would have been better.
Kate Galvin's production is well paced and engaging, with a few transcendent moments that bridge the gap between the achingly out of reach and gut-wrenchingly familiar. This is one of Eugene O'Neill's finest works and this production offers a good opportunity for fans of playwright to see A Moon for the Misbegotten in Philadelphia now and across the country in the months to come.
A Moon for the Misbegotten by Eugene O'Neill runs through February 7, 2016, at the Walnut Street Theatre, Independence Studio on 3 at 825 Walnut St., Philadelphia. For tickets call 215-574-3550 or 800-982-2787 or visit www.walnutstreettheatre.org or Ticketmaster. For upcoming tour stops, see www.walnutstreettheatre.org/season/ontour.php.