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Eugene O'Neill, born in 1888 and dead by the end of 1953, carried around a lot of angst. He had an absentee father and a morphine-addicted mother. He drank too much and suffered from severe depression. He divorced his first two wives, and his third was hopelessly addicted to sedatives. His older brother died of alcoholism at age 45. He disowned his daughter, Oona, when she married Charlie Chaplin, and then two of his sons killed themselves.
He was not known as a writer of comedies.
In A Moon for the Misbegotten, the last play O'Neill wrote before his health failed him, he was still struggling to come to grips with the family he was born with (this may partially explain his lifelong inability to deal with the various families he created). There is no evidence that O'Neill thought the struggle would end well, which may be why he chose to view the issue from as removed a perspective as possible — through the eyes of a purely fictional family, the Hogans, as they interact with the specter of O'Neill's dead older brother, Jamie.
It is the same Jamie, Jamie Tyrone (called "Jim" in this play), from O'Neill's deeply autobiographical Long Day's Journey Into Night. He is older in Moon, drunker, and sadder, beset by continual attacks of the "heebie-jeebies" — a condition far less cute than its name would imply.
The play's scope is small, its focus tight: 24 hours on the Hogan farm in September 1923. There aren't many Hogans left there. In the first scene, the last of the Hogan boys is seen escaping his hardscrabble life with the aid of his sister, Josie, leaving her and her father on their own.
They are tenant farmers, and Tyrone is their landlord. They are also Tyrone's only friends. He is partial to the elder Hogan, Phil, because Phil can drink almost as much as he can, and he is partial to Josie because he's a little in love with her, even if she is known throughout her small Connecticut town as a slut.
A minor miscommunication between Tyrone and the elder Hogan leads to a misbegotten, moonlit date between Tyrone and young Josie. In the Palm Beach Dramaworks production, the date comes immediately after intermission, about 40 minutes into the play. All that's come before, first-time Mooners will soon realize, was a prologue: That date is the meat of the play, and it is one hour and 20 minutes of the most soul-twisting, heart-chewing theater you're ever likely to see.
This is largely due to the casting of Todd Allen Durkin, who digs as deeply into his roles as anybody. But the character of Tyrone is special. In the taxonomy of theater, he is a close cousin to Durkin's recent turn as haunted, womanizing Guy in Neil Labute's Some Girls. But Tyrone makes Guy look positively well-adjusted. My thought upon leaving the theater was: Jesus! Playwrights had more grit back in the day!
Durkin's performance is as achingly personal as O'Neill's attempt to figure out his brother's self-destruction, and it's hard to describe without resorting to clichés. I'm tempted to say that the hairs on your neck will stand up, that your knuckles will be white on your armrests. This is all true, because Durkin's performance is nowhere near a cliché. He is a picture of a man whose very mind is poison. He is guilty, though he can never really explain what of. He cannot even kiss a girl without thinking he's doing something terrible. "Josie," he says, "you don't know what you're doing... When I poison something, it stays poisoned."
The performance is enough to make you wonder about Durkin's health or even long-term prospects. Watch as he smacks a cup of bourbon from Josie's hand for no reason at all — the cup flies, you know her hand has been hurt, and Durkin simply doesn't give a fuck. I had the queer sense that I wasn't seeing acting at all but an expression of some deep, leaping rage that had been waiting for this moment to show itself. And there are many more like it.
Of course, that's acting too. But what acting! Watch when Josie goes into her family's shotgun shack to retrieve more booze and Tyrone is overcome with the heebie-jeebies. They look like a case of extreme DTs. Todd's hands shake; his face examines his disintegrating body with a look that says, Oh no, not again. He hates his condition, but any struggle you might search for in his face, in his body language, or in his voice is subsumed by a terrible resignation. He won't struggle; he knows there's nothing to be done.
Kati Brazda, as Josie Hogan, is almost as good, and one suspects she'll get better after another weekend or two. As of now, she still seems vaguely flummoxed by some of the rhythms in O'Neill's dialogue. It's a minor complaint that barely undermines her effectiveness, and it should be said: Moon, even during its weakest moments, or in moments that have nothing to do with Tyrone and Josie's booze-soaked date, is an extremely well-put-together production. In fact, it's probably the most thoroughly moving thing I've ever seen from director Bill Hayes.
Michael Amico's set is redolent of slow, romantic decay; above his rotting farmhouse and rusty well, even the wooden sky looks like it might be infested with termites. And casting Peter Haig as farmer Phil Hogan would be a stroke of genius if Haig weren't a Dramaworks stalwart anyway. In his every scene, his drunken cantankerousness rubs raw against his native good nature, and the man's sadness — the estranged family, the poverty, the rock-filled farm whose most abundant crop is poison ivy — is gorgeously offset by a rough grace that's the only thing that could keep a man smiling through such a life. His is the grace that O'Neill was likely hoping to inspire in himself when he wrote the play. After being put through O'Neill's dramatic grinder, Haig's performance, which really feels more like a benediction, is the one thing that will allow Moon's audiences to sleep soundly come nighttime.