Thanks to the battalions of gardeners employed by the local municipality, Queen Street was colorful as well as bustling on our first visit of the year to the Shaw Festival.
But the Shaw’s production of A Moon for the Misbegotten at the Courthouse Theater was a disappointment — all the more so because the Shaw’s production of Ah! Wilderness in 2004 was so good. How could two Eugene O’Neill plays with the same director (Joseph Ziegler) turn out so differently?
Ah! Wilderness was, of course, a comedy, while A Moon for the Misbegotten is mainly a melodrama. The real difference, though, was the cast. The ensemble that gave us Ah! Wilderness was of uniformly high quality; that can’t be said of the smaller cast of A Moon for the Misbegotten.
Here’s the plot: Hard-working, hard-drinking Irishman Phil Hogan (played by Jim Mezon) and his daughter Josie Hogan (Jenny Young) are long-time tenants on a rocky farm in Connecticut. Their alcoholic landlord, James Tyrone (David Jansen), has promised never to sell the property to anyone but them. However, a wealthy, polo-playing neighbor, T. Stedman Harder (Patrick McManus) covets the Hogan farm, not because he wants to farm it, but because Hogan’s pigs keep getting loose and fouling Harder’s ice pond. The Hogans worry that Harder will make Tyrone an offer for the farm that’s too good to refuse.
Meanwhile, there is something between Josie and Tyrone that may, or may not, be leading to marriage. Phil Hogan is preoccupied with whether the attraction between Tyrone and his daughter will ever come to anything. Josie’s reputation for sleeping around complicates matters, as does Tyrone’s constant drinking. Hogan devises a scheme to trap Tyrone into matrimony with his daughter.
From the moment he takes the stage as Phil Hogan, filthy, sweaty, and disgusting from a long day in the fields, Jim Mezon towers over everything and everyone with his bear-like presence and endless torrent of words. Early in the play, the rich neighbor comes by the farm to complain about the pigs; Hogan bullies him, toys with him, triumphs over him, and drives him away with a barrage of mockery. This magnificent scene cried out for spontaneous applause, which surprisingly never came. (Emsworth is never brave enough to be the first to clap.)
And after that, the show (we saw one of the last preview performances) was never the same. Hogan retreated from sight into his farmhouse, and in the next scene, between James Tyrone and Josie, the show’s energy level dropped like a stone.
The problem was that one larger-than-life character is not enough for A Moon for the Misbegotten; the play needs three. Surely Josie should be every bit as forceful a character as her father. This is a character, after all, who not only has always been in control of her own sexuality, but who is more than a match for Phil Hogan, verbally and physically. Jenny Young is simply not Josie, and at times her readings of her lines seemed — it pains us to say — amateurish.
Nor does she look the part. O’Neill conceived Josie as a large, slatternly woman just past the bloom of youth. Despite her loosely fitting costumes, Jenny Young was clearly pretty and petite. The amply-proportioned Nora McClellan (the long-time Shaw Festival actress who deserted to Stratford last year) had both the look and the stage presence and would have been superb in this role in her younger years.
David Jansen was disappointing last year as Horace in Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes (see Emsworth’s review); he was disappointing again this year as James Tyrone. Tyrone may be a drunk, but surely O’Neill didn’t intend him to be as colorless and ineffectual as this. Why would the strong-willed Josie even consider an alliance with such a man?
From this production — especially from Jim Mezon — we saw just enough of O’Neill’s vision to have a sense of the power of the play. We can only imagine the impact A Moon for the Misbegotten could have had, with a different cast, in the intimate confines of the Courthouse Theater.
Emsworth reviews of other Shaw Festival productions in 2009: