by Jack Shaw

South Camden Theatre Company’s production of MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN did justice to one of O’Neill’s most personal and difficult plays to perform. In what is often thought of as a “downer” of a play because of the subject matter, O’Neill gives us some chuckles by blending the real us with the hidden us. And, I came to appreciate the literary side of Eugene O’Neill’s genius once again.

O’Neill is the American playwright that reads as well as a performance. His words can be an actor’s dream to use as a weapon. Forget the normal motivation when you do O’Neill; his characters are strong, complicated and real–something absent in most plays at the time he wrote, which is what won him four Pulitzer Prizes for Drama and the Nobel Prize for Literature. He wrote plays based on his own life and people he knew. O’Neill’s own life was quagmire of overly dramatic behavior; he saw no ordinary people–only the harsher reality that dwells in each of them. As such, he knows us, his audience, and wants us to know ourselves and the selves we hide.

The play takes place on a Connecticut tenant farm in 1923 and focuses on three main characters: Josie Hogan, a domineering Irish woman with a quick tongue and a ruined reputation, her conniving father, Phil Hogan, and James Tyrone, Jr., Hogan’s landlord and drinking companion.

O’Neill’s “Josie” is based on a woman he knew as a youth, and Tyrone is based on his brother, Jamie who died from literally drinking himself to death in a matter of months after his mother died.  In the end, O’Neill’s brother, Jamie, was blind and his hair totally white, but his “Tyrone” is given a chance for love to make it easier to die. A peace we don’t all get unless we come to terms with our “misbegotten” nature, it seems is O’Neill’s belief.

I am always amazed that a script of finely written literature, and lines that sometimes span an entire page or two, can be brought to life by actors at all. Enormous hard work had to go into this production–especially by the actors, but unfortunately the result here was uneven, but admirable. O’Neill is not your typical playwright. He transformed the theatre into an art form as acceptable as literature; his characters are gems but difficult to perform. The SCTC did a credible job. The show is definitely worth a look for anyone, and a must see for O’Neill fans.

The first scene left me wanting because in many of the moments O’Neill uses to set the characters, the banter is too soft-spoken to be believable. There should be action in that scene, not just a rhythm–and the musical Irish lilt. Phil’s third son has deserted him. Is he mad because he lost his slave, angry that Josie stole from him (or even helped Mike)? There are a range of emotions at play here we should be experiencing. What we had was a conversation on a cramped stage, well-acted on the surface but lacking the intended power of the playwright’s words.

Ryan Walker as “Mike Hogan” and Nick Groch as “T. Steadman Harder” give as good as they’ve got, hampered by a lack of room on the small stage. The same goes for the rest of the actors. While the set looked wonderful, it lacked the room to let the performance flow. Actors were stuck plastered against the shanty, sitting on the steps or wiggling around chairs inside the shanty. Opening the shanty like a garage door was genius though.

Sometimes architecture gets in the way, but a theater does have the option of not doing a show that doesn’t fit the set concept, or designing a more open set that does. I won’t argue this show was too big for the set; but it shouldn’t be with so few characters.

Travis Bogard in his book, Contour in Time, talks about A MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN.

The play is doomed to failure without superb acting. It is long, totally simplified and stripped of theatrical devices, a lyric drama, concentrated on character more than narrative.

Actors sometimes get too wrapped up in the accent to see the intention of the line–the unusual idioms being more amusing, a distraction to the action. I think that’s what happened here. Obviously a fine actor, Eric Pedersen’s (as Phil Hogan) Irish bluster needed to become a rougher Irish brogue to yield it as a weapon. Phil’s Irish bluster is what allows him to get away with his conniving because it is just that. Without it–even when size matters, I didn’t find him particularly threatening; he seemed too nice even covered in the theatrical dirt with his perfect haircut and beard trim. Ironically, the younger Josie’s and Mike’s accent was stronger.

Susan Jami Paschkes as “Josie” had some wonderful moments and really shines in the last scene, but again, I think she has the right idea but I have a feeling she’s holding back. Josie and Phil are very much alike, both use bluster to hide their flaws. Josie, her pride, and Phil, his desire for power. When used well, the moments of softness and truth are amplified by the contrast. The audience knows better the bluff and the honesty. Granted, it is an intimate house, but I still thought it wasn’t enough.

Kevin Doyle’s often powerful performance as “Tyrone” could have benefited from a little more build. I’d like to have seen the beginning of the breakdown in the bluff in bringing his secret to Josie. Where the bluff serves Josie and Phil, it also serves Tyrone. In spite of that, Kevin and Susan were phenomenal in the last scene. This also marks the pivotal scene for Eric Pedersen as well who does great justice to the final moments between he and Josie.

What O’Neill meant by “misbegotten” cannot be simply defined. His words suggest a kind of madness that the misbegotten share, together with a spiritual deformity. “Misbegotten” refers to the people at the bottom of society and are outcasts from the world. O’Neill in earlier plays had shown that even with nothing to sustain them it was possible for the misbegotten to belong, at least, to one another—to form, as it were, a society of the damned. The frame of that society was a vision, created from memory and hopeless desire.

That is MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN. Josie’s look says it all as Tyrone leaves her and goes off to die.

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