Arts & Events

THEATER REVIEW: O'Neill's Last Play, 'A Moon for the Misbegotten'

By Ken Bullock
Friday May 02, 2014 - 03:39:00 PM

"It's a fine end to all my scheming ... " So says Josie Hogan—conflicted temptress, appointed by her father to seduce their drunken landlord, a man who she perhaps harbors other feelings for ...

Josie's words above are humorously quoted by director Ron Nash, reflecting on the directing project this play culminates, in his program notes for Marin Onstage's production of 'A Moon for the Misbegotten,' Eugene O'Neill's last play—later than 'Long Day's Journey into Night' and featuring once again the character of James Tyrone, based on O'Neill's tormented older brother.

With a small cast and crew, Marin Onstage and Nash finish out their "trilogy" of collaboration splendidly, which began last year with a remarkable staging of Ibsen's 'A Doll House,' followed by an exciting, gamey production of Strindberg's 'Miss Julie'—and now, from the American heir to that modernist theater tradition, the intended climax of 'Moon.' 

And it is a climax, a strange intensification of the deeper-than-depth psychology that Ibsen and Strindberg helped introduce into modern theater to explore further that oldest of Western dramatic themes—the family, always with at least a hint of the incestuous about it. 

And 'Moon' reeks with that scent, as James Tyrone, played by John Nahigian with presence and sensibility, unpeels himself like an onion, exposing his life of a stage door Johnny, a dissolute heir of a successful actor-manager, to Josie, the seemingly coarse, even slutty (as her own father calls her) overgrown Irish farm girl on the Connecticut tenant farm that's part of Tyrone's inheritance. 

Invited by Josie to come spoon romantically in the moonlight on the stoop of the Hogans' glorified cabin, Jim Tyrone comes apart, finally talking about the death of his mother, in a long, wrenchingly beautiful scene, not without humor, as the libertine becomes the suffering son—and the would-be seductress, the loose woman of the neighborhood, turns into a madonna, resolving the romance on the stairs into a kind of tableau, a Pieta. 

With O'Neill, tragedy is more like inverted comedy: film director Howard Hawks once spoke of the close relation between melodrama, with obstacles to be overcome, and comedy, in which those same obstacles provide comic embarrassment. All the Hogans' scheming—to razz their nouveau-riche neighbor T, Stedman Harder (deftly played by Will Lamers, a surprised stuffed shirt in a scene of hazing by Phil and Josie Hogan that has him pinging across the stage between them like a pinball), then to damage-control Harder's threat to buy the place and evict them by tricking their hard-drinking landlord into bed and a verbal shotgun wedding with Josie—evaporates into moonlight, into the beauty of the world outside and the torments within ... 

"All of a sudden, all the fun went out of it, and I was more melancholy than ten Hamlets," intones Tyrone. 

Michael Walraven plays Hogan as the joking, lilting, Protean trickster—or would-be trickster—seeming to be stern, manipulative, narrow-eyed, but moving with suppleness through a world dominated by others. Josie—the character in every sense at the heart of the play and O'Neill's intention, the polar opposite and antidote to the long-suffering mother invoked by Tyrone—is played with great sensitivity by Walraven's own daughter, Caitlin. They work splendidly together, caviling against each other when they're not scheming in tandem. But it's in her scenes with Tyrone, slowly realizing that neither her own schemes nor the deeper hopes that underlie them can contend with the ghosts that haunt her landlord-cum-beau, in which her real power emerge, paradoxically—in a play consumed by words, Irish blarney, outcries of the soul and pure poetry—through silence, a glance, a slight movement of the lips ... 

Nash has staged the piece in the half-round, bringing the action—and the wonderful dialogue—close to the audience, half wrapped around the dooryard of the stony farm, stumps and a water pump leading up to the Expressionistic sub-American Gothic frame of a house, the facade of the Hogan's abode. 

Through masterful editing and stagecraft, this ostensibly heavy tale slips by throughout the evening like the moonlight in the title, the counterpoint to these lost and misunderstood lives. Ron Nash, Marin Onstage producer Gary Gonser, the small but valiant crew (including Frank Sarubbi, the lighting man behind the moonlight) and the splendid cast, have woven a fine tissue of O'Neill's complex of words, actions and memories. It's the last weekend for it at St. Vincents, the pioneer church and onetime Gold Rush orphanage on the Bayside of 101, just north of San Rafael. It's the ripe time to see a play like this. 

May 2nd and 3rd at 8 p. m., May 4th at 3, St. Vincents Little Theater, 1 St. Vincents Drive (opposite Marinwood; same exit), north of San Rafael. $10-$18. (415) 448-6152 or