Reviewed by George Basler
Eugene O’Neill is the Mt. Everest of American drama. A climb to the summit can be a daunting task for audiences and actors alike. But once there, the view is overwhelming.
Such is the case with A Moon for the Misbegotten, a heart-wrenching play that O’Neill wrote at the end of his career.
KNOW Theatre in downtown Binghamton is now making the climb in a production that opened this past weekend (I attended the June 21 performance) and will run through Sunday (June 28). Despite some shortcomings, it’s a commendable effort that catches much of the power of O’Neill’s drama.
What’s all the more remarkable is that the two leads, Caitlin McNichol and Josh Sedelmeyer, took over their roles only 10 days before the play’s opening (the opening was postponed a week) when the two original leads left the play.
Learning O’Neill’s lines is a daunting enough task in itself. The fact that McNichol and Sedelmeyer also give compelling performances is why their acting should be applauded, and applauded loudly.
A Moon for the Misbegotten can be seen as a semi-sequel to O’Neill’s largely autobiographical Long Day’s Journey into Night, written two years earlier. While that play focuses on O’Neill’s entire family, Moon centers on James Tyrone, played by Sedelmeyer, a third-rate Broadway actor, who is slowly but surely drinking himself to death. The character is clearly inspired by O’Neill’s beloved but alcoholic older brother.
The other main character is Josie Hogan (McNichol), a strapping country girl whose tough exterior and blunt language mask a sadness and longing.
To be honest, the basic plot isn’t much.
The play begins with James having inherited an estate following the death of his mother and father. On the estate is a shanty Irish tenant farm that the unmarried Josie and her father, Phil (Tim Gleason), have worked for 20 years.
As the act progresses, the reprobate father, whose ugly nature has driven away his three sons, uses a long-standing flirtation between Josie and James to try to lure the liquor-soaked James into a shotgun marriage, so he doesn’t sell the farm to the pompous oil magnet T. Stedman Harder (Nick Ponterio), who has designs on the property
A Moon for the Misbegotten is not the perfect play, and the KNOW production, directed by Brandt Reiter, is not the perfect production. The first act is a slog to get through as the characters banter among themselves, and the father pulls a trick on Harder.
But the banter, which is supposed to be humorous, falls flat. Let’s face it: The light touch was not O’Neill’s specialty, and he takes an awfully long time to set up the action. Things aren’t helped by the fact that Gleason’s performance as the father leans a bit too heavily on Irish blarney.
This all changes in the second act when the play catches fire and becomes an emotional tour de force, driven by O’Neill’s lyrical language, Sedelmeyer and McNichol’s fine performances and Reiter’s direction.
At its heart, the act is an extended and tender love scene in which the two misbegotten characters drop their illusions to seek and offer forgiveness. Sedelmeyer and McNichol, who are alone on the stage for almost the entire time, rise to the acting challenge.
One point, unfortunately, has to be made, however. Sedelmeyer looks too young for the role of James. While the character is supposed to be a ruined hulk of a man, he looks more like a college boy who has been to one to many fraternity parties (wearing two hats, he also plays Josie’s younger brother in the play).
The age inappropriateness is disconcerting but given the strength of Sedelmeyer’s performance, and the fact that he stepped in at the last minute, I was willing to suspend disbelief and go with it. Slowly, but surely, the actor peels away James’ surface to expose the pain and self-loathing of someone who has seen “too goddamned many dawns creeping grayly over too many dirty windows.”
McNichol is equally fine as she exposes Josie’s underlying tenderness. The character functions as a kind of “father confessor” (O’Neill was Catholic after all) who hears sins and provides forgiveness. Her performance is heartbreaking.
Particularly striking is a cathartic monologue near the end of the play in which James, confesses his greatest sin with the intensity of a truly lost soul. Josie cradles him in her arms to provide love and comfort even while knowing that James is “a dead man walking slowly behind his own coffin.” As played by Sedelmeyer and McNichol, the scene is riveting.
Credit also needs to go Gregory L. Bain’s skillful lighting, which heightens the emotion in the second act.
What’s noticeable about the play is its forgiving nature, not always seen in O’Neill’ other works. The main characters, at least for a time, find some peace. O’Neill apparently really loved his brother.
In short, a strong second act more than makes up for a tiresome first. KNOW Theatre attempted a steep climb and made it a good way toward the summit.
IF YOU GO: A Moon for the Misbegotten concludes this coming weekend (June 26-28) at Know Theatre, 74 Carroll St., Binghamton . Performances are at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $20 ($15 for seniors, $10 for students). Go online to www.knowtheatre.org, or call 607-724-4341.
There also is a pay-what-you-can performance at 8 p.m. Wednesday (June 24).