Ensemble's 'Moon for the Misbegotten' Sets the Stage Aglow

Jim (Mitch Rose) and Josie (Lara Mielcarek) prove confession is good for the soul.
Jim (Mitch Rose) and Josie (Lara Mielcarek) prove confession is good for the soul.

Sex, class, mythology, religion, the Irish-American experience and the perfidy of the rich: All this, and some black humor too, is what you get just within the first act of Eugene O'Neill's redemption story, Moon for the Misbegotten.

Written in 1943 — and set 20 years earlier on a rocky Connecticut farm — Moon follows its three protagonists (Phil Hogan, Josie Hogan and Jim Tyrone) as they wrestle with love, loss, deception and redemption in the course of slightly less than 24 hours.

Alternately called a love story, a tragi-comedy and a miracle play, the four-act opus is, most notably, O'Neill's apology to his real-life brother James, the object of both the playwright's rage and pity, who died of alcoholism two months after the September day in which the play is set. Conceived as a follow-up to the darker, better-crafted Long Day's Journey into Night, it's not hard to see the play as O'Neill's late-career offering of forgiveness for his brother's sins.

In this sense, it's not all that far-fetched to suspect that O'Neill wrote the play — his last completed drama before his death 10 years later — more for himself than for an audience, a supposition that helps explain the occasionally clunky dialog and the long, grueling slog the characters take toward the play's final resolution. (Has ever a couple of lovers misunderstood each other's meaning for even half as long? Except, you know, maybe in real life?)

But if, as some critics have claimed, Moon is one of O'Neill's lesser plays, it is still worth viewing. Much like listening to the least polished tune on a beloved album, seeing Moon performed provides both greater insight into a groundbreaking American playwright and a fuller appreciation of his craft.

Plus, the cast at Ensemble Theatre is currently doing a bang-up job of bringing the play to the boards, under the strong direction of Ian Wolfgang Hinz and assistant director Cassey Fye, and stage manager Becca Moseley.

In the pivotal role of Josie Hogan, the physically powerful daughter of Irish farmer Phil, classically trained Equity actress Lara Mielcarek shines. While in his stage notes O'Neill describes the 28-year-old Josie as "so oversize for a woman that she is almost a freak," Mielcarek is no such thing. Still, she commands the stage and the action with such energy that it seems entirely plausible that she could beat any man senseless, should she so choose. More importantly, she maintains that command throughout all four acts of the play, during which time she is almost constantly on stage.

In the role of her scheming father Phil, Robert Hawkes makes for a cuddly old rapscallion who hides his love for his tough-as-nails daughter beneath a blustering exterior, all the while helping her maintain the self-protective ruse that she is the town slut. Hawkes and Mielcarek have great chemistry together, especially in scenes that find them alone on the stage trading insults, plotting revenge or revealing themselves to one another as the well-meaning human beings they truly are. (And in return for all that, we'll overlook the odd fact that the daughter's Irish accent is far stronger than the father's.)

The role of James "Jim" Tyrone Jr. is the vehicle for O'Neill's memories of his alcoholic brother, and the eventual rapprochement between Josie and Jim — as saint, and sinner making his confession beneath the holy light of the moon — is the nut of the story. While on opening weekend, actor Mitch Rose seemed a little stiff in his early scenes as Jim, he loosened up as the play progressed, exhibiting more range and generally capturing the torment of a drunkard yearning, first, for absolution and, second, for his own death.

Actor Nate Homolka makes a brief appearance at the beginning of the first act as Josie's annoyingly prim brother Mike, an appearance that seemed greatly enhanced by the presence of Mielcarek's Josie. And in the play's most outright comical scene, James Rankin plays the role of the Hogans' despised upper-class neighbor, "Standard Oil's sappiest son," T. Stedman Harder. Using their rapier-sharp wits and dark sense of humor, Josie and Phil cut poor Harder to pieces in a comic confrontation over property lines. Perhaps inevitably, Rankin sort of disappears beneath the onslaught of hilarious hostility from Mielcarek and Hawkes, like a piece of liver thrown to a pair of hungry lions.

Costume designer Meg Parish dresses the cast in period- and circumstance-appropriate garb, right down to Harder's riding crop and Jim's rakishly perched boater hat. Still, it's hard to believe that a man with Jim's money would wear such sloppily hemmed trousers; and for a struggling dirt farmer, Phil's shoes looked awfully clean.

The play's action takes place almost entirely on the porch and front yard of the Hogan's rundown house, which Hinz, who doubles as set and light designer, has modeled with a spare, almost abstract-impressionistic quality. Lighting effects stand in for the titular moon and later provide a golden sunrise. And between acts, a soundtrack of melancholic acoustical and roots music maintains the action's growing sense of sorrow.

While O'Neill was the first American playwright to see theater as a worthy venue for stories of substance and psychological insight, today's audiences can certainly quibble with some of his characterizations. Most problematic is probably Josie's stereotypically dual nature — the all-forgiving Earth Mother hiding beneath a cloak of sexual promiscuity. But there is no doubt that Saint Josie's famous last line — "May you rest forever in forgiveness and peace" — could make a fine benediction for us all.