Dougherty Arts Center Theatre, through Sept. 24
Depending on whom you ask, Eugene O'Neill's last published play is about either Josie Hogan or Jim Tyrone. He wrote A Moon for the Misbegotten to chase away the guilt he felt over his brother, who died from alcoholism, and portrayed him as Jim, a third-rate actor with dreams of fame drowned in gin. O'Neill sets him up with a young Amazon, Josie, written specifically to be "freakish" and terribly unattractive.
She lives with her father in Connecticut in a pre-Depression farmhouse of which Jim is landlord. Josie's father is the hard-hitting sort, calling her an ugly cow, to which she replies that he's a drunken loon. They trade barbs over her conquests at the local inn, even though both know that Josie's a virgin. But the moment Jim comes along, her change in character is like night to day. They set a date to "spoon in the moonlight." Her father takes the opportunity to scheme ways of keeping his land from his mustached, wealthy neighbor. O'Neill loves to flip contrasts from violence to love, whore to virgin, guilty to forgiven, sober to soused, and illusion to truth.
In this production, you can add American to Irish to that already long list. The Celtic Cultural Center and Renaissance Austin Theatre Company bring O'Neill's play back to town after many years with an authentically dark and droll Celtic sensibility, drawn from Scotswoman Lorella Loftus, who produces and stars as Josie, and Austin band the Tea Merchants, who provide contemporary background music that suits the piece well. Loftus has the best Irish brogue (actually one of the only ones), and with her red hair frizzed out, her dirty costume, and her coarse nurturing and sharp tongue, it almost seems like O'Neill wrote the part just for her.
As Phil Hogan, Mick D'Arcy is a textbook heel-kicking, giggling, decrepit father. The repartee between him and Loftus' Josie, who's still a daddy's girl, was more charming than the romance between Jim and Josie. The lovers' scene has to be one of the most heartrending in drama and not to be missed, but the awkwardness and absence of intimacy between Loftus and Charles P. Stites, who plays Jim, keeps the scene from drawing us in. Jim asks Josie to just be herself for that night. She becomes the moon and "gives birth," she says, as his redeemer, but her love remains unrequited. He groans a suspenseful confession that takes him far beyond a drunken night and unfulfilled dreams. Stites becomes a lonely wolf howling at the moon. In the end, the moon is gone, Josie loses her sprightly veil, and Jim goes on cloaking his misery. O'Neill's illusions are somewhat lost in this production as the lights come up and the moon is cranked back up into the sky.
In comparison to the play's sunny first half, the second half is drawn out, trudging forth like a rusty wheelbarrow. That can be attributed to O'Neill's melancholia and disposition in making this and his previous plays an epitaph to his dysfunctional Irish family. But Loftus, D'Arcy, and Stites make this wheelbarrow worth the haul.
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