THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
STAGE REVIEW

This 'Moon' is marked by waves of emotion

By Terry Byrne
Globe Correspondent / April 30, 2009
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LOWELL - A warm yellow-orange light illuminates the rocky land Phil Hogan and his daughter Josie call home in Merrimack Repertory Theatre's production of "A Moon for the Misbegotten," helping to soften the rough edges of the Connecticut tenant farmers' hardscrabble life and blur the taste of bitterness always lurking around the corner.

Eugene O'Neill's last finished play uses this odd family duo as a way to return to James Tyrone (Michael Canavan), the character based on O'Neill's brother, who is destroying himself with drink. Tyrone is the Hogans' landlord, yet he has more in common with them than the Broadway crowd he should be socializing with. Phil Hogan (Gordon Joseph Weiss) is a fast-talking con man who's swindled nearly everyone around, including Tyrone, while his daughter, Josie (Kate Udall), ably assists him both with his schemes and with sending off her three brothers to better lives in Bridgeport. These two aren't terribly sympathetic characters, but Merrimack's nearly pitch-perfect production strikes a delicate balance between the harsh reality of these characters' lives and the glimmer of hope that continues to flicker in spite of everything.

Some productions of O'Neill's tragedy set a maudlin tone from the beginning, since it's obvious this tale will not end well. But director Edward Morgan has found O'Neill's funny bone, and with Weiss's sly performance as Phil, he mines some mischie vous joy in the play's comic scenes. The arrival of the Hogan's wealthy neighbor (John Kooi), wearing a prim riding outfit that looks oddly ridiculous next to the Hogans' grimy, faded clothes, becomes a scene of high humor. Weiss practically dances around the stage as he and Josie outwit and outmaneuver their angry neighbor, and then swiftly send him on his way. Later, when Phil returns home drunk from his visit to the nearby inn, he lurches toward his farmhouse, kicking his hat across the stage in a slapstick routine worthy of Charlie Chaplin.

Emphasizing the comedy makes the play's shift to tragedy even more poignant, because ultimately, this drama belongs to Josie and James Tyrone. As Tyrone, Canavan is the appropriate combination of dapper and dissolute, never quite allowing the audience to believe he can be trusted. But Josie comes to trust, understand, and finally, forgive him. Although O'Neill's intention was to find absolution for Tyrone after leaving him unresolved in "Long Day's Journey Into Night," in this production, Josie is the character who is transformed.

Udall starts out with a brassy, broad performance, but with each scene, more of her vulnerability is exposed. When she finally flings her arms around Tyrone, it looks as much like an attempt to capture him as a sign of affection. The cost of giving this man the peace he needs is high for her, and Udall communicates her willingness with a shift of her shoulders and a tilt of her chin. In that simple moment, her Josie goes from ungainly to angelic, and as the dawn breaks to end their moonlit rendezvous, the sense of release is palpable.

This "Moon for the Misbegotten" never feels as sad as it might. Udall's performance in particular delivers a kind of redemption that is inspiring.

A MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN Play by Eugene O'Neill

Directed by: Edward Morgan. Scenic design, Bill Clarke. Costume design, Jeni Schaefer. Lighting design, Beverly Emmons. Sound design, Michael Boso.

Presented by Merrimack Repertory Theatre through May 17. Tickets: $26-$56. 978-654-4678, www.merrimackrep.org