The program for the Rubicon Theatre Company’s impressive production of A Moon for the Misbegotten includes a glossary of slang terms used by the characters. But while younger patrons will appreciate its precise definitions of rotgut and heebie-jeebies, Eugene O’Neill’s 1943 drama has become dated in ways that go beyond its language.
The master American dramatist’s final work has many of his familiar themes — family dysfunction, class conflict, and the agony of addiction — but they are presented here in a stale, sexist context, in which the men are sinners and the women are either virgins or whores.
What’s more, the climactic revelation — the horrible deed that has driven the central character to drink himself nearly to death — has lost its shock value over the decades. In today’s more psychologically aware culture, it seems like the easily forgivable act of a grief-stricken man.
While time has drained Moon of much of its power, the Rubicon production perfectly captures its many moods. Director Jenny Sullivan, who just staged a superb Good People for the Ensemble Theatre earlier this year, again coaxes fine performances from her cast while displaying a near-perfect sense of pacing.
Joseph Fuqua stars as James Tyrone Jr., a stand-in for O’Neill’s older brother. (The entire family is portrayed in the playwright’s masterpiece, Long Day’s Journey into Night.) A playboy who makes his home in New York, James pays a visit to a small New England farm he owns, which is managed by Irish immigrant Phil Hogan (Granville van Dusen) and his feisty daughter Josie (Rebekah Tripp).
The Hogans have a comfortable relationship with their landlord, but they sense that this visit is somehow different. Phil, an amusing character who uses his considerable verbal gifts to get away with anything he can, fears that James is selling the farm to a hated neighbor. But a scheme he cooks up with his daughter to get revenge proves pointless when Josie realizes that James’s obvious despair has nothing to do with buying or selling land. He needs to bare his soul, which he eventually does.
Drinking hard and longing for death, Fuqua’s James is a genuinely haunted man; his blank stare can send shivers down your spine, and Van Dusen’s lively earthiness makes an excellent contrast. Tripp puts on a tough-girl act for the first half of the play before movingly letting her façade slip in the final scenes. She hardly fits Josie’s self-description (“an overgrown lump of a woman”), but then, that’s more a reflection of the character’s low self-esteem than an actual physical depiction.
Thomas Giamario’s set is evocative, but the awkward placement of the entryway to the Hogans’ home is problematic. Marcy Froehlich’s costumes are fine, but shouldn’t these hardscrabble farmers have more dirt on their clothes?