- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 11, 2002

Come on, admit it. We may profess to being content with our strength and independence, or in our being alone again.

Yet, we keep a small, sweet part of us pure, whole and hidden away just in case we are called upon to love.

It is this small part of ourselves that looms so greatly in director Molly Smith's transcendent production of "A Moon for the Misbegotten" at Arena Stage. This is the luminous sequel to Eugene O'Neill's shattering drama "A Long Day's Journey Into Night."

While "Long Day's Journey" was a family tragedy, "Moon" has many elements of romantic comedy.

Much playful banter flies between Josie Hogan (Janice Duclos), a rough-tongued Irish-American farmer's daughter, and Jim Tyrone Jr. (Tuck Milligan), a fading and alcoholic actor, who mirrors the life of O'Neill's older brother, Jamie. Their light sparring is darkened by liquor and a vortex of need.

As in most romantic comedies, plots and scheming abound, mostly brought about by Josie's rascal of a father, Phil (Robert Hogan), an Irishman who lays it on as thick as 2-day-old oatmeal. He's a quintessential tightwad with a thirst for whiskey, a tall tale and practical jokes.

Phil isn't above playing tricks on his own daughter, defending himself at the end by saying he was only thinking of Josie's happiness. Whether he's spouting blarney or terrorizing a wealthy neighbor (J. Fred Shiffman, hilariously putting on airs) who has come to complain that Phil's pigs are happily swimming in his ice pond, Phil played with rapacious glee by Mr. Hogan is a small-potatoes farmer writ large.

O'Neill, however, takes the conventions of comic romance and goes for something more tremendous and beautiful. This happens under one of the most durable cliches in romance the midnight moon.

The first act is earthy and delightful in the lyrical dissing between Josie and her father somehow, cruel insults sound prettier in an Irish accent whose constant sniping only partially conceals their love and dependence on each other. Phil constantly refers to his tall, sturdy and zaftig daughter as a "cow" and delivers other barbs about her body; she also describes herself in such harsh detail.

Yet, O'Neill has reasons for describing Josie as "so oversize for a woman that she is almost a freak." That Josie herself and most of society views her a large misfit, and therefore unlovable, makes the epiphany of the second act all the more acute. Jim is her soul mate in that they are both self-loathing, but Jim's comes from crushing familial guilt. Jim has no problem with her figure in fact, he cannot keep his hands off Josie.

Jim is fond of quoting Latin and then peppering his sentences with "kiddo," "wow-wee" and "sport." Mr. Milligan combines a matinee idol's profile with the wry cynicism of a confirmed drunk and failure in his masterful performance as James Tyrone. He is like what O'Neill calls a "dead man walking behind his own coffin," yet you can detect a restless spirit still within him.

The audience is eased into a hardscrabble folksy rhythm among the three and enjoying the teasing and the bravado until the second act. Then, a spectacularly drunk Jim proposes that he and Josie sit in the moonlight and have one night and one night only that is like no other. To Josie, this means the romance and soft-talk for which she has yearned. She washes herself, fixes her hair and puts on her best dress and stockings, anticipating the tenderness that has eluded her for so long.

To Jim, it means tearing off their masks, their blarney and revealing their true selves.

The second act pours serious moonlight on the faces of Jim and Josie as they move through the night. Josie starts out with her usual teasing and bluster, but is transformed by Jim's urgency. He insists that they stand in the moonlight as God made them flawed, hurt, magnificently human.

This is possibly one of the most devastatingly lovely love scenes in American drama. Here sits two lost souls shedding their fake skins, with Josie struggling to expand into the love cast wide by Jim. When the love widens her heart, you can almost see it flooding the flesh Josie thought nobody wanted. That is how great Miss Duclos is as Josie. She allows us to witness the character's transformation of body and soul.

When they give each other the forgiving love they need, it is such a glorious moment lover and lover, mother and son all rolled up in the simple image of a man abandoning himself to sleep in a woman's arms. When dawn comes and Jim leaves, Josie says after him, "May you have your wish and die in your sleep soon, Jim darling."

She wants her loved one to wake up in the death he craves rather than live in pain and blight another day. This is the kind of big, gnarled love that O'Neill describes so hauntingly in "A Moon for the Misbegotten."


****

WHAT: "A Moon for the Misbegotten"

WHERE: Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater, 1101 Sixth St. SW

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. tomorrow, June 2, 9 and 16; noon Wednesday and May 22, all through June 16

TICKETS: $32 to $49

PHONE: 202/488-3300

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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