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Theater review: "A Moon for the Misbegotten" at Geva

Long night's journey


Like many artists, American playwright Eugene O'Neill found his most powerful muses in his own life. Three of his most famous works -- "The Iceman Cometh," "Long Day's Journey into Night," and "A Moon for the Misbegotten" -- are autobiographical and use characters based on members of his immediate family.

Geva Theatre Center is currently collaborating with Theatre Royal in Waterford, Ireland, to produce "A Moon for the Misbegotten," directed by Theatre Royal Artistic Director Ben Barnes. With an international cast and a previous run in Ireland already finished, the show will run in Rochester through most of April.

The plot focuses on the Hogan family, poor tenants on a Connecticut estate owned by the wealthy Tyrone family. Phil Hogan and his grown daughter, Josie, are the only family members remaining on the rundown little farm, and they rely on their wits and wiles to survive. When the duo finds out the landlord's friendly son, James Tyrone Jr., is about to come into his inheritance and may sell the farm to a neighboring millionaire, they concoct their wildest scheme yet. (For those who are familiar with O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey into Night," this is the sequel.)

Geva's set is a farmhouse facade -- assumedly ramshackle, but really resembling a modern minimalist design with clean lines and pale wood. A porch runs the length of the facade, and Scenic Designer Joe Vanek has littered the ground with wooden crates, creaky tin pails, and rusty farm tools. The stage itself has been covered with dusty boards to recreate a stony, dry yard. Vanek also designs 1920's-era costumes, from tailored suits for Tyrone to boxy cotton dresses for Josie. It's an incredibly effective aesthetic when coupled with Lindsay Jones's sound and music design, which includes the chirping of birds (later on in the show, crickets) and wistful Irish music between scenes.

In "A Moon for the Misbegotten," the use of light is particularly important. Not only does the audience witness a transformation from dusk to dawn, but the lighting also acts as a guide to the narrative. Lighting designer Ann G. Wrightson is masterful in her choices, aligning her cues with the emotions of the play. A larger-than-life moon begins to glow behind the house as the sun sets during the show.

"A Moon for the Misbegotten" has a cast of only five characters. Augustus Cuddy (Mike Hogan) -- whose last name may ring a bell for those familiar with Geva's leadership -- is in the show very briefly, but his character's pious, earnest attempts to reform his sister Josie before he leaves home pave the way for much of the show's Irish banter. Michael Quinlan (T. Stedman Harder), likewise, only appears in the show briefly, but his exchange with Mark Lambert (Phil Hogan) is easily the funniest scene in the play, and Quinlan's deadbeat facial expressions and physical reactions are key to the humor. Quinlan appears as part of the international cast, as does Lambert, who plays the alcoholic patriarch in "Moon." Lambert is well known on stages across Ireland, and it's obvious why: He is a force on the stage. He seems to be typecast to play the mischievous, conniving Phil Hogan, with his bawdy jokes and native Irish accent. There's a strong dynamic between the other actors and Lambert, which speaks to his ability to shine the spotlight on another player (which often results in stealing it back for himself; a masterful talent).

Donald Sage Mackay plays James Tyrone Jr. -- a character O'Neill based upon his older brother, who was also an alcoholic. Mackay has all the suave and street smarts of a Broadway actor (which the character has been), using 20's slang with the charm of Jay Gatsby. His interactions with Kate Forbes (Josie Hogan) in act two are moving in their intensity.

As for Forbes, she deserves an entire review of her own. She is a star in this role, and seems born to play the rough-and-tumble, brave Irishwoman. Forbes melds the rusty exterior of Josie Hogan and turns it inside out -- slowly -- through the duration of the play, until audiences see the pure interior of the character's nature. (If there's one criticism for Forbes, it is simply that her lilting Irish accent disappeared a few times throughout the show.)

This play is a shining example of author Chuck Palahniuk's theory that "A good story should make you laugh, and a moment later break your heart." "A Moon for the Misbegotten" is an all-consuming, whirlwind two-and-a-half hours. True to O'Neill's style, the story doesn't have a clear resolution; it leaves the audience wanting more. Between O'Neill's gripping words and Barnes's inspired direction, Geva audiences will leave the theater reflecting on past loves, losses, and redemption.