"A Moon for the Misbegotten" - ★ ★ ★ ★
For the first time since its 1992 debut at a Glencoe bookstore, Writers Theatre has staged a Eugene O'Neill play.
It took 26 years, but director William Brown's reflective, richly textured revival of Eugene O'Neill's "A Moon for the Misbegotten" was worth the wait.
O'Neill's last drama, a coda of sorts to "Long Day's Journey Into Night," is a tender tale of love and loneliness, grief and solace, and the possibility of finding absolution -- and a bit of grace -- on a moonlit evening.
If O'Neill is America's William Shakespeare, as Goodman Theatre's Robert Falls has long insisted, "A Moon for the Misbegotten" is his "Romeo and Juliet."
O'Neill's star-crossed Josie and Jim are older and more circumspect than their teenage counterparts. No enmity from rival families threatens their union. On the contrary, landowner Jim Tyrone and Josie's father, tenant farmer Phil Hogan, are longtime drinking buddies.
But the devotion these would-be lovers feel is as profound as that of Shakespeare's characters. The love between Bethany Thomas' Josie and Jim DeVita's Jim is rooted in sacrifice and characterized by mindful selflessness rather than impulsive passion. Theirs is a mature love that comes from knowing and being known. Unfortunately, it isn't enough.
A sharp-tongued, kindhearted woman who's accustomed to hard work, Josie uses her tarnished (albeit undeserved) reputation to insulate herself from the rejection she's convinced would accompany any attempt at romance.
Described as a "dead man walking behind his own coffin," Jim is a fading, alcoholic actor who has embraced his downward spiral. He uses booze the way Josie uses her ruined reputation, as a protective shield.
Each has carefully crafted a facade. For that matter, so has Phil Hogan (the wise, winning A.C. Smith). A seemingly self-serving swindler (and the source of much of the play's humor), Phil perceives more than he lets on. Like his daughter and his landlord, he's not above engaging in a bit of deception. That's what O'Neill's characters do in this play. They mislead others into thinking they are somehow less than they are: less virtuous, less compassionate, less clever.
The only entirely upfront characters -- though not nearly as compelling -- are Phil's disdainful neighbor T. Stedman Harder (Eric Parks), the son of an oil baron who wants to buy Jim's land, and Mike (Cage Sebastian Pierre), Phil's self-righteous youngest son who escapes the farm and family in the play's opening moments.
The performances are first-rate throughout, but those by Thomas and DeVita are especially exquisite. There's a faded gentility in DeVita's demeanor and a kind of controlled desperation in his behavior. Underscored by resignation, but without self-pity, DeVita's quietly muted performance is never less than compelling.
It's complemented by Thomas' expertly realized Josie. Thomas, who stands about a foot taller than DeVita, delivers a towering performance that pairs aching vulnerability with boundless compassion. What results is a potent, poignant portrait of a woman who understands sacrifice.
Wisely, Brown keeps the focus on Thomas in this carefully staged production. In her expression, we see warring emotions: affection, insecurity, love, loneliness and ultimately understanding. Kudos to Thomas for her moving, memorable work.
In a behind-the-scenes video interview, Brown describes "A Moon for the Misbegotten" as a play that "invites you in and holds you spellbound." Indeed. Lyrically written and laugh-out-loud funny at times, "A Moon for the Misbegotten" is a beautifully sad, sadly beautiful theatrical work.
The same can be said of Writers' production, noteworthy for the authenticity of the performances and for Brown's race-conscious casting, which stems, according to dramaturg Regina Victor's program notes, from Brown's desire to "show a different, and yet more familiar reality."
So it does. In this incarnation, the Hogans are African American. Jim and Harder are Caucasian. Brown's casting highlights not only the economic disparities that existed between races during that time (the play unfolds in 1923 Connecticut), but the power imbalance that exists between the tenant and her prospective lover landlord. That imbalance is unsettling, especially now.
But not for a moment do we doubt that Josie and Jim belong together, for whatever precious time they have left.
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Location: Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe, (847) 242-6000 or writerstheatre.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 6 p.m. Sunday, through March 18. Also, select Wednesday matinees.
Running time: About 3 hours, including two intermissions
Parking: Street parking available
Rating: Suitable for teens and older, some sexual references