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A Moon for the Misbegotten — Walnut Independence Studio on 3

misbegottrn -- interiorKate Galvin’s production of “A Moon for the Misbegotten” is as solid and as sturdy as Eugene O’Neill’s scrappy hulk of a rough-tongued heroine, Josie Hogan.

The staging doesn’t dazzle. It’s not majestic. It doesn’t soar with poetry like some “Misbegottens” do. Or let you ignore O’Neill’s constant references to Josie’s reputation for being loose or James Tyrone’s taste for liquor, gambling, and Broadway tarts. But it does capture the sweet, elegiac rhythm of O’Neill’s speeches, is chocked with humor that pays, and entertains in a calm, mellow way that makes you care about Josie and James and the life experiences that knit them together but keep them apart.

“Misbegotten” is a sequel of sorts to O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” It continues the story of that play’s least important character, James Tyrone, who is a wastrel who only earns a living because his famous father, an actor of note, gets producers to give him parts in their Broadway plays.

Tyrone has a major speech in “A Moon for the Misbegotten,” one that lasts more than 15 minutes, in which he tells of his life and the reasons he has the class and manners of a gentleman but the tastes of a ne’er-do-well. Tyrone opens his heart and his best self to Josie, and Anthony Lawton plays his part, and his long “confession” well, but it is the introduction of the Hogans, Josie, and her father, Phil, that keep “Misbegotten” interesting.

Josie Hogan is a large woman in every way. She’s taller and more powerfully built than her father and brothers. She has big features, feet included, and she uses her size to dominate the people around her and the community where she lives.

Josie is a worker. She spends dawn to dusk doing necessary chores around the minimally producing farm her father rents at a nominal fee from James Tyrone. She has no airs or frills. She an earthy, responsible woman who speak her mind, commands respect, and is not beyond using a clout, with either her first or a stout pole, to make her point with someone who needs sense of her caliber beaten into him.

Josie’s life is hardscrabble and matter-of-fact. There’s isn’t much feminine about it.

Yet, O’Neill paints Josie as all woman, and the actress playing Josie has latitude to show a tenderer, more longing, more sentimental side.

Josie is “Misbegotten’s” center. It is she and what happens to her we care about.

While we’re caring, we admire her strength, her eye on reality, her ability to take part in a warranted scam or jest, and her general goodness.

Yes, Josie may agree to join her father is some nefarious schemes, but the victims of those schemes get as much as they deserve, if not less than is coming to them. In general, Josie is honest and forthright, the kind of woman who, if people know her, engenders love. But not romance. Josie, Tyrone, and Phil talk jokingly about her being the village slut, and Josie speaks boastingly of her one-night stands with men at the local inn, but she is a woman whose deepest affections and whose human desires have not been tapped.

As with most matters, she keeps her lack of anything even neighboring true love in perspective and goes about her business noting it but no sulking about it.

O’Neill, though, on the night “A Moon for the Misbegotten” comes to its climax, is concerned only with truth. About Josie. About Jamie. About the emotions and yearnings we hold inside. A midnight, moonlit meeting between Josie and Tyrone is the time for revelation and catharsis, a time when “A Moon for the Misbegotten” elevates from being an engaging, amusing story to a work of art that unveils the ungratified, probably beyond-ameliorating, souls of two extraordinary people who wallow, either for lack of imagination or lack of discipline, in their torpors and keep their best selves to themselves while showing brave façades to the world.

Galvin’s “A Moon for the Misbegotten” only hints at the depth O’Neill’s play can achieve. It is laudable is its own right as a straightforward rendering that takes you where O’Neill is heading but never goes past being “good.”

NealBoxThe production is enjoyable, and the cast plays its parts with enough texture, you get involved with the three nuclear characters. Galvin and her cast are substantial and credible without being robust or more than superficially moving. This is one of those time as a critic, I don’t want to overplay the emotional tenor of the production but I don’t to give a falsely modest sense of its quality or ability to engage. Galvin’s “Misbegotten” is warm draws you to Lawton’s Tyrone and Angela Smith’s Josie. You are seeing fine theater that doesn’t graduate to “special.” There are no flaws in the production. There’s nothing Galvin and her cast misses or misplays. They work at a high, satisfying level that doesn’t reach an epiphany or take you beyond the basics of O’Neill’s story and the vivid characters he depicts but that keeps you attentive and curious. Smith and Lawton each have moments that show the humanity, scope, and depth of their characters. Smith’s comes by the loving resolve on Josie’s face when she realizes she will not be having loving sex with James Tyrone but will, in her ineluctable, earth-motherly way, comfort him in his catharsis and lead him beside the still waters he so rarely experiences. Lawton’s comes in Tyrone’s sincerity about Josie being different from other women, his impatience with blather he knows is false and sad, and his softening of Tyrone’s barroom-Broadway-bad boy behavior when he wants to meet his only honest and beloved friend on authentic terms.

Both actors show glimmers of deepening their characters, and it’s possible Galvin’s “A Moon for the Misbegotten” will become more atmospheric, textured, and touching as it wends towards its Feb. 7 closing date.

It was in decent enough shape on opening night.

Galvin and cast aim for the natural and the authentic. They let O’Neill’s lines provide their characters’ personalities, telling a joke or delivering a sharp retort in the course of conversation, or to entertain someone who’s listening to their story instead of pushing O’Neill’s humor or playing it for easy laughs.

The tone of normality, of everyone going about his or her business as he or she would if no one was watching, is the appeal of the production. You believe that what you’re seeing could take place, and even that Jamie can be a poetic or Josie as sentimental as each of them becomes.

Intensity would enhance the importance of the production, but honesty in presentation and good, solid foundation do the trick of keeping you going through “Misbegotten’s” near three-hour duration.

Well, it is O’Neill.

Angela Smith has Josie’s physicality down to a science. She looks like one whose attained health and muscle doing daylong farmwork for all four decades of her life. Smith is strapping, and you can see scrapping with men and any other intruders who might get on her nerves, father and brothers included.

Smith’s Josie is no-nonsense. In fact, she is all sense, letting you hear her reasoning for going in with her father or some shenanigans and rejecting others.

Smith also knows her way around Irish blather. She matches Lawton’s Jamie and Michael Toner’s Phil in all sorts of teasing badinage between the times real subjects to discuss emerge.

Smith looks right in loose shift and grease-stained apron Julia Poiesz designs for her to wear. Her worktime homespun sets off the simple but relatively stylish and handsome dress Josie wears for her “date” with Jamie. Poiesz’s best touch is trading Josie’s untied, calf-length brown leather boots for dainty shoes that Smith shows she can’t wait to get off of her feet.

Smith suits the part and is effective is getting the audience to like Josie and look out for her interest as “Misbegotten” proceeds.

As with other parts she’s played, Josie Hogan being her largest and most challenging to date, Smith has to work on the colors of her line delivery.

Her prosaic approach works with Josie Hogan, but Smith’s performance would be even richer if she could modulate lines more carefully and put more than a literal spin on O’Neill’s dialogue.

Josie is meant to be plain and plain-spoken, even she’s humorously threatening to creating havoc or upbraiding Phil or Jamie for something he did or said. There are paces, inflections, and levels of voice that can give Josie more verbal strength and emotional shadings. Smith is not so subtle. She is direct. Her objective is to get the line said. She doesn’t find the musicality or soulfulness in Josie that Lawton and Toner, especially Toner, do in Jamie and Phil.

Also, Smith’s Irish accent has a way of finding itself back in America, particularly at the end of sentences. This doesn’t interrupt or disturb, but it is another sign that Smith, already a presence with several good performances to her credit, will elicit more empathy, show more strength, and rivet the audience once she develops more variation and endows more specific purpose in her live delivery.

That “purpose” can be interpolated without marring the naturalness of Josie’s presence.

Lawton and Toner prove it.

Lawton is adept at playing the Irish version of a kibbitzer. His Jamie and Toner’s Phil have many a spar, and each holds his own in the repartee.

The actor’s best moments come when Jamie wants to bring everything down to the real and demands that all games and posturing between him and Josie come to a halt.

Jamie and Josie have known each other their whole lives. They know the myths, inventions, and accepting stories from the truth. Lawton’s Jamie is in particular need of the truth, especially as he will soon be able to quit being a country gentleman and have the wherewithal to return to Broadway and a self-destructive course that he knows is not good for him but suits the lifestyle and proclivities he thinks a Broadway rogue should have.

Both Jamie and Josie have a lot at stake when they meet. Each wants a bit of miracle to happen that would change both of their lives, probably in a positive way, if their separate but identical dreams were not too shopworn with wishing and rethinking to come true.

Smith can look wistful. Lawton is more skilled at conveying an actual battle going on between his best and most usual selves. You see in his eyes and his walk a sincere desire that his most beautiful plans and intentions might be the ones that prevail.

Language once again gets in the way. Lawton measures Jamie’s long speech about his youth, his upbringing, and his feelings for his mother, father, and brother, all of whom we know from “Long Day’s Journey,” but he doesn’t quite make it resonate. We listen more from curiosity that from compulsion to know what formed James Tyrone’s character. I found my mind drifting on occasion during Lawton’s monologue. Admirable as the job he does with it, it does not river or move as much as it informs.

This Josie and Jamie get and hold your attention. Even, perhaps, your sympathy on a simple level. But they don’t get your heart.

Michael Toner is in fine form at Phil Hogan, as much a wily rapscallion as he is a patriarch and good drinking companion.

Toner’s Phil is the man for telling a story and has a clever snappy answer for anything you say to him.

There’s a twinkle in Toner’s eye when he jokes with Jamie or turns tables on a haughty neighbor who comes to complain about Phil’s pigs going through the fence that divides their properties and bathing in his ice pond.

Before the neighbor, one T. Stedman Harder, can mention Hogan’s porcine violators, Toner cunningly warns then “Sun Oil millionaire” he may have to sue him from luring his pigs to the ice and nearly catching their death of pneumonia.

Toner can be cantankerous and loving, all in a lather then perfectly calm, and scheming while knowing when to back off. His is a loveable portrait of a difficult man who is too entertaining to resent and too sharp to beat in an verbal tussle.

Philadelphians are aware what an achievement it is for Toner to appear and give his usual fine performance. Less than a year ago, right after casting for the Walnut’s “A Moon for the Misbegotten” was announced, Toner was severely injured as a pedestrian in an automobile accident that cost the actor his left leg. Mega-kudos to Bernard Havard, Mark Sylvester, and Kate Galvin for persevering with Toner and keeping in this role, one in which he will tour for a few months after the Walnut Street run. It is a tribute to the theater and, of course, to this remarkable actor and recuperating man, that Toner went on, and his gait and physical movements seemed a vestige of Phil’s age and neglect as taking care of himself.

Jamison Foreman offers two capable turns as a Hogan son Josie sends on his way in the world and a the defeated, though unbowed, Harder.

Julia Poiesz does a fine job costuming throughout. J. Dominich Chacon’s lighting becomes a character of its own as the sun rises on the Walnut stage as Jamie and Josie keep Platonic vigil as dawn approaches. Andrew Thompson’s set is a typical New England cottage with lots of siding missing, so you can look into the hurricance-lamplit Hogan domicile at any time.

“A Moon for the Misbegotten” runs through Sunday, February 7, at the Walnut Independence Studio on 3 at the Walnut Street Theatre, 9th nd Walnut Streets, Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday and 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets range from $35 to $30 and can be obtained by calling 215=574-3550 or by visiting www.walnutstreettheatre.org.

 

 

 

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