James, Eugene O’Neill’s guilt-ridden and drink-sodden elder brother, whom we first met in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, makes his farewell appearance in A Moon for the Misbegotten (1943). Haunted by having caused the death of a baby brother and believing himself forever unforgiven by his beloved and loving mother, he frittered himself away as a minor actor in his father’s company, boozing and wenching. He gave up the bottle while tending to his mother during her final illness in California, but hit it all the harder after she died. While bringing her coffin back east, he had a drunken orgy with a prostitute on the train, increasing his self-hatred. He died in his forties in a sanitarium, unvisited by Eugene, who, twenty years later, wrote this expiatory play.
Yet the protagonist of Moon is not so much James as Josie, the fictional daughter of a real-life pig farmer, John Dolan, an O’Neill tenant. Josie is the woman Eugene would have wanted for himself but invented for James: part virgin, part whore; part big-breasted earth goddess, part tenderhearted mother surrogate; recognizably a figment too good to be true. But thanks to O’Neill’s artistry, she is true enough to be a riveting character when incarnated by the right actress.
Who, though, is such an actress, described as five feet eleven inches, 180 pounds, “with large, firm breasts, her waist wide but slender by contrast with her hips and thighs,” with “black hair as coarse as a horse’s mane,” and “more powerful than any but an exceptionally strong man,” yet not a bit mannish, but “all woman”? Of several Josie embodiers, Salome Jens (1968) and Colleen Dewhurst (1973) came closest. Wendy Hiller (1957) must have been all wrong, as Kate Nelligan (1984) decidedly was.
And what of the incumbent, Cherry Jones, who has the requisite “small nose” and “high cheekbones” and not much of the rest? She is, however, a transcendent actress; when Cherry is in bloom, she is, like her namesake trees, worth a pilgrimage from the four corners of the earth. But is she Josie Hogan? She is tomboyish, powerful, and luminous, but there is also a girlish refinement, a lack of rough-hewnness. And the big bosom is lacking, for all the generous heart within it. Yet she is O’Neill’s virgin pretending to be a slut; she is the angel of absolution, the voice of the pardoning mother. And hers, too, the sweetly cradling arms in that one moonlit night of confession and forgiveness – the one pure, platonic spurt of love either she or James will ever experience.
As James, Gabriel Byrne gives a complementarily moving performance as a lost soul in a dying body, whom we watch superbly enact the painful rites of a redemption as his flesh visibly wastes away. Like Miss Jones’s, Byrne’s acting is replete with illuminating detail, quick in seismic mood shifts, full of contradictory impulses chasing each other like a kitten its tail. And the two actors rise sublimely to that great night scene, a secular Pietà, with the dawn bringing purification but also a parting forever.
And then there is farmer Phil Hogan, the hard-drinking, rascally father, sarcastic and pugnacious yet loving underneath, with whom Josie is locked into a comical sparring match and insult contest but also into abiding affection. The wonderful Roy Dotrice may be just a shade too leprechaunish, but who can quarrel with a performance so vibrant with venal roguery and sheepish love?
Just how good is this last completed work of the author’s? Walter Kerr thought it O’Neill’s best, but Eugene himself came to loathe it, and other worthy opinions cover the entire spectrum between. Unquestionably, O’Neill’s language was always problematic, his humor often merely grotesque, his characters at times too maniacally oscillating between wounding and apologizing, spite and remorse. But there is also a meatiness, a tenacity of grip, and, finally, a grandeur, which this production captures.
Eugene Lee’s set may be a bit boulder-happy, but Jane Greenwood’s costumes, ranging from austere to drab, Pat Collins’s moon-drunk lighting, and Daniel Sullivan’s detailed yet unfussy direction all confidently hit home.