Since 1988, the Arden Theatre Company has mounted works by everyone from Shakespeare to Sondheim (both of whom have been staged multiple times), but never a play by Eugene O’Neill. He’s finally welcomed to the Arden’s stage with the company’s admirable mounting of the great American playwright’s final work A Moon for the Misbegotten. It would be misleading to say director Matt Pfeiffer’s production is worth the wait—29 years is, after all, a lot to make up for when you’re talking about neglecting (arguably) America’s greatest dramatist. Still, there’s a great deal to applaud.
O’Neill began writing Moon, the last play he completed, in 1942, shortly after finishing his semiautobiographical masterwork Long Day’s Journey into Night. It acts as something of a sequel to Night—and is also generally regarded as a tender goodbye to the playwright’s older brother Jamie, on whom main characters in Night and Moon were based. Jamie O’Neill, like Night’s Jamie Tyrone and Moon ’s older incarnation Jim Tyrone, struggled with alcohol; in 1923 he died in a sanitarium a broken, penniless man in the late stages of delirium tremens. And the plays based on him are about as sunny as you might expect.
Moon takes place on a run-down farm, home to the poor, hardworking Hogan family but owned by Jim Tyrone Jr. (Eric Hissom). Phil Hogan (H. Michael Walls) and his daughter Josie (Grace Gonglewski) have an amicable relationship with their landlord, but don’t exactly trust him. Jim is an alcoholic, and far from a charming drunk. He’s promised the land to Phil at a reduced price, but a neighbor, oil baron T. Stedman Harder (Allen Radway) is willing to pay five times as much. Phil worries that in a booze-induced stupor Jim will forget their agreement.
But it’s the affectionate relationship between Jim and Josie that interests O’Neill. It’s more affection than romance—Josie’s a big farm girl, described by O'Neill as a 5’11”, 180-pound “ugly cow of a woman,” who believes herself too unattractive to qualify for love; Jim’s an alcoholic mama’s boy well on his way to squandering his life. Phil sees a union between the two as a solution to both the family’s money problems and Josie’s loneliness, and schemes to get them together one way or another. But Jim is used to bars and Broadway tarts. With Josie, he’s looking for something else.
Hissom lays the foundation for his Jim early in the play. Although he’s a relatively young actor, his Jim is far from spry. Looking close to death, Hissom gives Jim the perpetual aches and pains not of an old man, but of a chronic alcoholic. Moving stiffly across the farm’s front yard, he awkwardly bends and falls/sits on the porch’s front step. When Josie later describes his lips as akin to “kissing a corpse,” we can feel what she means.
Gonglewski is neither bovine nor an “ugly, overgrown lump of a woman,” as O’Neill further describes Josie, but she pulls off the character’s disenchanted gruffness well. But still more important is her ability to communicate Josie’s inner beauty and warmth. Gonglewski doesn’t portray the near-mythic mother figure often associated with the role, but a caring woman whose tough exterior masks a feminine and surprisingly vulnerable soul. It’s another fine performance from an actress who has been a key figure in Philly’s theater revival, and her Josie is one of many reasons to attend.
Of equal importance is Pfeiffer, who in the past decade has become one of the city’s most talented theater artists (though he directs here, he’s also a more than capable actor). His Moon is atmospheric, emotionally intense and easily the swiftest production of this work I’ve ever seen, a fast-paced, high-stakes affair. Pfeiffer’s unrestrained production allows the extremes of emotion in the play’s final act to pour out, and we too are emotionally drained by the end.
For all the emotional angst conjured by Gonglewski and Hissom, the best moments in the production involve the quiet passage of time. Courtesy of Thom Weaver’s magnificent lighting design, scenic designer Mathew Saunders and sound designer James Sugg, we watch as the house sits alone and light drains from the day as a piano plaintively plays. There’s a moment of dusk, and as twilight segues into black night, the amber lights in the house take hold and spill out the windows and through the cracks in the wood shingles. Later, after Josie and Jim have spent the night bonding with the moon, each other and a bottle of bourbon, Josie sits on the porch with Jim asleep in her lap, watching as dawn breaks over the yard. It’s a moment of almost unearthly beauty in which you can almost believe in absolution—but not quite.
Through Feb. 27. $29-$48. Arden Theatre, 40 N. Second St. 215.922.1122. ardentheatre.org
Calendar: Sept. 2-9