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O'Neill's 'A Moon for the Misbegotten' gets better with age
By Barbara Vitello | Daily Herald Columnist

Jim Tyrone (Christian Gray) finds comfort in the arms of Josie Hogan (Erin Noel Grennan) in First Folio Theatre's revival of Eugene O'Neill's "A Moon for the Misbegotten."

 

Savvy Josie Hogan (Erin Noel Grennan) gives as good as she gets from her wily father Phil (Larry Neumann Jr.) in "Moon for the Misbegotten," running through May 3 at First Folio Theatre.

 

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Published: 4/10/2009 12:01 AM | Updated: 4/10/2009 11:54 AM

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Romeo and Juliet have nothing on Jim Tyrone and Josie Hogan, the would-be lovers in Eugene O'Neill's eloquent "A Moon for the Misbegotten."

The Connecticut farm girl with the tarnished reputation and the dissolute actor with a guilty conscience have neither the beauty, nor the naiveté, nor the impulsiveness of Shakespeare's star-crossed pair.

And they are all the more tragic because of it.

Older, wearier and more battle-scarred, Josie and Jim have carefully cultivated their personas. They have carefully crafted their delusions - which they use to insulate themselves - and which they offer to the rest of the world as truth. And having considered their options, they chose the one that breaks their hearts because their consciences will not allow them to do otherwise.

Disdained by its author and censored during its 1947 premiere in the Midwest, "Moon for the Misbegotten" - O'Neill's last play and the coda to his masterful "Long Day's Journey Into Night" - fared poorly initially. Over time, however, this moving tale of love and absolution, loneliness and guilt has emerged as one of O'Neill's most powerful dramas. O'Neill doles out humor and pathos equally in telling the love story of Josie and Jim, two people close to finding happiness with each other, who ultimately cannot close the sliver of space that separates them.

Director Alison C. Vesely's emotionally resonant, achingly simple revival for First Folio Theatre conveys that fact beautifully and with the kind of quiet dignity that O'Neill's most compassionate drama demands.

The characters - earth mother Josie, her pig farmer father Phil, and their alcoholic landlord Jim, a fading actor inspired by O'Neill's older brother James - are complex, vulnerable and highly perceptive. In Vesely's cast they find ideal expression.

Erin Noel Grennan brings genuine humanity and unfailing grace to Josie Hogan, the self-proclaimed slut who embraces her undeserved reputation to protect herself. Grennan's purposeful performance is one of subtle power, and nicely calibrated emotions reflected most obviously her character's interaction with Jim and Phil where a hint of regret accompanies her easy banter.

Christian Gray plays Jim Tyrone - the landlord who Josie loves and Phil fears will sell them out - with a combination of complacence and self-loathing. Spiraling downward spiral, his finances faltering like his Broadway career, he remains a stylish, savvy, self-aware drunk who perceives all too clearly who Josie really is and recognizes his inability to be the man she deserves.

Larry Neumann Jr. - so brilliant as Edgar Allan Poe in First Folio's original adaptation of Poe's stories from several years ago - plays Phil, a scheming, self-serving old cook whose wiliness hasn't entirely eclipsed his humanity. Maybe.

There's never a false note from this cast, which also includes Patrick Halley as Josie's self-righteous brother Mike and Ehren Fournier as the Hogan's disapproving neighbor T. Steadman Harder. Movingly acted by Grennan and Gray, the second act revelation and confession between soul mates Josie and Jim offers about as rich an emotional payoff as I've seen on stage this year.

First Folio's production comes a month after the conclusion of Goodman Theatre's ambitious, hugely successful retrospective of some of O'Neill's early works. Goodman showcased cutting-edge and in some cases highly conceptualized versions of O'Neill's plays. Vesely adopts the opposite approach for "Moon for the Misbegotten," which unfolds in 1923 on a dusty, rundown farm made welcoming by set designer Angela Miller and lighting designer Alex Bernstein. In an interview earlier this year, Goodman artistic director Robert Falls called O'Neill the "American Shakespeare."

First Folio's remarkable revival reveals it's true.

"A Moon for the Misbegotten"

Rating: 4 stars

Location: Mayslake Peabody Estate, 1717 W. 31st Street, Oak Brook

Times: 8 p.m. Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays through May 3

Running time: About two hours, 45 minutes, with intermission

Tickets: $23-$30

Parking: Free lot adjacent to the estate

Box office: (630) 986-8067 or firstfolio.org

Rating: For adults