In O'Neill, the 1960 biography by Arthur and Barbara Gelb, the husband-and-wife team write of O'Neill's 1943 autobiographical opus--the last piece he finished--as follows: "The play was Jamie's epitaph, and though it was a brutal exposé of his brother, it was far more forgiving than O'Neill could reason himself into being in 1923 [when Jamie O'Neill died]."
The play was, in fact, an imaginative rearrangement of Jamie's last days, arising as much out of penitence on O'Neill's part as out of a desire to vindicate his brother. It was typical of the sort of wish-fulfillment to which O'Neill was often addicted in his work.
The Gelbs have something there, although one might quarrel with O'Neill's giving in to any wish-fulfillment in Long Day's Journey Into Night. An absolving strain, however, does leak through the script of A Moon for the Misbegotten like sap through the bark of an old tree. The action drives--lurches, even--from low comedy to tragedy to lyricism to sentimentality in ways that other O'Neill works steadfastly refuse to. Certainly the conviction that there's no point in holding out hope to humankind for long-lived serenity underlies both Long Days Journey Into Night and The Iceman Cometh.
So what gives with the gentler Moon for the Misbegotten? The Gelbs make a good case that sibling guilt is the impetus. Longing to expiate himself for a callous response to his alcoholic brother's demise, O'Neill concocted a hale and hard tragifarce for that brother to find expiation--or, at least, momentary relief. In the play--which, incidentally, was a failure when first produced in the late '40s--Jamie Tyrone (Gabriel Byrne), losing his battle with the bottle at an accelerating pace, spends time with Josie Hogan (Cherry Jones), the daughter of pig farmer Phil Hogan (Roy Dotrice). Hogan is a tough old Irishman who rents a patch of O'Neill--er, Tyrone--land, more rock pile than anything else. Josie is meant to be a big-boned girl and is also meant to be Jamie's match in terms of both disillusion and discontent ("You and I belong to the same club," Jamie says to her). She has long taken her brothers' side against their demanding, rapscallion father; one of the brothers is striking out on his own as the play starts. Josie has also long made it plain that she couldn't give two hoots about her reputation as an easy sexual mark.
Strong-willed Josie's weak spot is Jamie. She's in love with him, and that's obvious to both him and the old man. Also as plain as the nose on her plain face are other truths she'd just as soon not own up to about her supposedly loose behavior. It's the three focal characters' ability to see through each other while pretending to hide from themselves that serves as O'Neill's dramatic thrust. Much of it takes the form of good-natured give-and-take that results in more genuine laughs than playgoers might expect from an O'Neill play, Ah, Wilderness! notwithstanding. In particular, when a neighbor with his eye on purchasing the Hogan acres arrives with riding whip in hand, the treatment he receives becomes O'Neill's equivalent of a '20s burlesque sketch.
It's a scene as rich in implications as a medieval tapestry--which is to say that it's woven from both religious and romantic threads. On the one hand it's a love scene wherein innocence and chastity is regained; on the other hand, it's a spiritual turn wherein the earthy Josie and the broken Jamie--arranged as if posing for a pieta--become nurturing mother and needy son. Had O'Neill called for halos and signs reading "Madonna" and "Child," he couldn't have been clearer about the Catholic undertone he wants to sound.
No one, of course, has ever accused O'Neill of being short-winded. As with many playwrights who achieve greatness and prominence, it would seem that no one could get him to trim his scripts unless he agreed wholeheartedly with their argument. So A Moon for the Misbegotten is rife with sections in which exposition is strewn about like so much pig feed (though, thankfully, there are no pigs onstage--only a symbolic one in the guise of the rich, greedy neighbor.) Added to the prolixity common to O'Neill's output is a clunkiness of tone; Phil Hogan's shenanigans don't quite fit seamlessly with his more soberly paternal turns. Is he a shameless codger whose sons run out on him for all the right reasons, or is he merely an adorable guy with bombastic edges? And, stunning as Josie's revitalizing one-night stand with Jamie may be, its after-effect is of something contrived, something fobbed off lovingly as honest.
But, pshaw!! The triumphs of A Moon for the Misbegotten are numerous enough to make too much negative criticism churlish. Perhaps foremost, the play contains three wonderful roles. And while it's worth noting that O'Neill thought it would be difficult (if not impossible) to find satisfying Josies, it also ought to be said that he probably would have approved of Cherry Jones, who has size and scale and a moon face and is just the kind of full-figured girl able to give those Hogan brothers a sound whupping. In the past few years, Jones has given performances ranging from on-the-button (Tina Howe's Pilgrim's Progress) to overrated (The Heiress). Barely a reserved word has been said about her--though she seems the latest in a long line of revered stage actresses who can't get arrested in Hollywood. Her Josie is simultaneously tough and vulnerable and has the shine of a chore-strengthened farm girl, even if she also sports the haircut of someone who's remained defiantly loyal to Vidal Sassoon. She's convincing in her cheap, store-bought togs (costumes by Jane Greenwood) right up to, but not quite through, the love scene, when the force-of-nature quality she has exhibited loses a modicum of force.
That may have something to do with the overshadowing brilliance of Gabriel Byrne's Jamie. In a season of notable male characterizations, his may be the truly outstanding one. Playing an often-transgressing man bent on destroying himself as punishment for entertaining a hooker during a cross-country train ride with his mother's corpse, he seems to have stared into the abyss and found the abyss staring back. Wearing a practiced jauntiness as rumpled as his three-piece brown suit, Byrne's Jamie emits laughs that contain their own dark echoes. Jamie says he's seen his own ghost, and Byrne makes sure the audience also sees the specter of such--particularly in the bent-shouldered walk he takes when, just before curtain, he leaves the action and heads toward his dire future.
In giving Byrne and Jones emotional leeway, director Daniel Sullivan shows a thorough understanding of the script's strengths, and he does as well as can be expected in his attempts to make the rest of O'Neill's handiwork seem what it isn't: all of a piece. He's undeniably as successful with Roy Dotrice's Phil Hogan as with his two leads--Dotrice lends Hogan as many crotchets as a wooden shanty has slats. Which is a good way to segue into the absolute rightness of Eugene Lee's set, dominated by the Hogan anti-estate with its tin roof, partially-viewed interior, and partial church window. (How subtly that architectural amenity tips O'Neill's subtextual intentions.) On one side of the house is a mound of boulders that seems to crush, as O'Neill eventually does, all long-term prospects for Jamie.
This is a Moon that beams its amazing light not just on the misbegotten, but on the many.