Regional Reviews: Chicago
Not to say there isn't a bit of a flourish in William Brown's production at Writers Theatre through its non-traditional casting of African-American actors as Phil and Josie Hogan. But as a program note points out, it's quite possible Phil and Josie could have been of the actors' race. There was a large population of African Americans living in Connecticut in the 1920s, when the play is set, and about half of them were farmers, as are the play's Hogans. So, for those who are looking for visual verisimilitude, there's that. (Directors appear to be finding that audiences or at least some critics misinterpret diverse casting by attaching meaning to an actor's skin color where none is intended, and such program notes giving context are becoming more common). But If one wants to accept the casting simply as color-blindness, that works, too, and this production shows the benefits to the audience of opening up to a wider talent pool. Thanks to Brown's choices, we get to see two marvelous performances by African-American actors A.C. Smith and Bethany Thomas in roles we wouldn't have expected until recently.
And what a gift it is! Bethany Thomas is a performer I've been following for over ten years. As a non-Equity actress, she has appeared mostly in musicals, many for Porchlight Music Theatre, with her powerful but disciplined voice always a standout. An Equity member for some time now, she returned to Porchlight last spring for Marry Me a Little and showed all sorts of vocal finessemore of it soft rather than brassy. With her performance in A Moon for the Misbegotten, she shows herself to be a dramatic and comic actress of enormous range and is stunning in one of the great roles of modern theater.
Thomas's Josie is rugged enough to make you believe she could handle the farm work as well as any man, and better than most. There's no doubt whatsoever that she could annihilate her smaller and younger brother Mike (a sweetly goofy Cage Sebastian Pierre). She's more evenly physically matched with Smith as her father Phil, but we believe she could knock the stuffing out of him as well. Their combativeness in the first act is especially believable, and Smith is no small manin Phil's more belligerent moments, he's rather frightening. But Smith can turn on a dime to show that much of that fury is only bluster and that there's a frightened and lonely man underneath. Thomas and Smith are alternately fierce and funny in the earlier parts of the play, but as it progresses, their needs and insecurities emerge.
Appearing as Jim Tyrone, the owner of the farm on which the Hogans are tenant farmers, is Jim DeVita, a longtime core company member of American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin. DeVita is effective in transitioning from Tyrone's initial demeanor as an affable jokester, equally comfortable among the show people of Broadway as he is with his tenants, to his eventual breakdown and revealing of his loneliness underneath.
O'Neill's characters struggle with maintaining facades. Phil wants to appear in control and holding some power, even as his sons leave the farm he risks losing if Tyrone sells it to a rich neighbor (comically played by Eric Parks). Josie wants to be seen as the loose woman of the town, using men for her own enjoyment, but is hiding a need for intimacy and romance under her decidedly un-romantic exterior. Tyrone's persona is that of a happy drunk, getting inebriated while spending hours with drinking buddies in the local saloon. On the surface, Tyrone is a successful working actor, but underneath he's an emotional wreck.
The premise of the play is that Phil and Josie believe Tyrone is about to sell the farm to the neighbor Stedman Harder, but Josie intends to stop that by tricking Tyrone into marriage during an evening date at the farmhouse. As she and Phil develop this plan, Thomas's Josie seems tough and schemingmore interested in financial security than love. As the play continues, her deep need for love and her long interest in Tyrone become heartbreakingly evident. When it becomes apparent that Tyrone, through DaVita's exquisite, layered performance, is unable to change and commit to a loving relationship, Thomas's performance of Josie's breakdown is devastating and is the core of this production.
Brown and cast deliver O'Neill's words with an impeccable sense of rhythm and variety, making pauses and silences as telling as the fast=paced verbal sparring. Together with Todd Rosenthal's realistic set of a weather-beaten farmhouse at the end of a dirt road with truck tire tracks evident, Jesse Klug's magical moonlight, Rachel Anne Healy's plain and fancy costumes, and Andrew Hansen's atmospheric sound effects, Brown's production is both poetic and realistic. It leaves us with a gut-wrenching realization of the difficulty in rising above self-defeating defense mechanisms to achieve the intimacy and support we all need.
A Moon for the Misbegotten, through March 18, 2018, at Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe IL. For tickets and more information, visit www.writerstheatre.org.