The Talk of the Irish | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

The Talk of the Irish 

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Touchstone Theatre

at the Halsted Theatre Centre

It must be a sign of an ethnic group's enfranchisement when undiluted stereotypes can be depicted without eliciting any cry of protest. In Eugene O'Neill's A Moon for the Misbegotten, Phil Hogan is an Irish immigrant farmer living in a broken-down shanty in Connecticut who drinks, lies, brags of the tradesmen he's swindled, and abuses his children. All three of his sons have fled the homestead; the only offspring remaining is his daughter, Josie, a woman of the type sometimes called a "she-male." Bigger and stronger than a strong man (there seem to be few in the vicinity anyway) and utterly indifferent to any womanly attractions she may have, she declares "I'm a big, rough, ugly cow." She easily returns her father's ill-tempered curses and boasts of having slept with most of the men in the county. The owner of the property on which they reside is one James Tyrone Jr., a former actor and present ne'er-do-well who drowns his sorrows in whiskey, women, and florid language.

And florid language O'Neill has in abundance--the Irish being the world champions at garrulity. The blarney falls thick as leaves in this play, the characters talking endlessly about matters well known to all of them, stretching to some two and a half hours a plot that's little more than this: Hogan fears that Tyrone will sell their farm to the rich English family next door, who are willing to buy him out simply to rid the neighborhood of the Hogan nuisance. Hogan convinces Josie that their only hope is for her to seduce Tyrone into marriage--or into a compromising situation, at the least. This is not as difficult a proposition as it might seem, for Tyrone fancies himself in love with the slatternly Josie. He even declares her to be a virgin and the considerable evidence to the contrary to be mere fabrication--and Josie, for all her defenses, is not entirely immune to this brand of moonshine.

Of course, old characters take on a whole new life when they're derived from one's own family. Or more accurately, O'Neill's family. A Moon for the Misbegotten is the last in a series of autobiographical plays written as exploration, exorcism, and retribution of a family history as complex and troubled as those in ancient Greek myths--which were often O'Neill's blueprints for tragedy and family strife. In this, his last play (completed in 1943 but set two decades earlier), O'Neill delves into the dissipation and early death of his older brother, the basis for Tyrone. Josie's last words to her doomed suitor are "May you have your wish and die in your sleep soon, and may you rest forever in forgiveness and peace."

Though A Moon for the Misbegotten has historical and literary significance, the frequently repetitious script presents a marathon challenge to actors. Characters declare "I'm a fool," "You're a fool," and "Don't be a fool" some 22 times in the course of the play, and accuse themselves and each other of lying many more; each time the actors must convey distinctly different subtextual meanings. The play's sheer size makes disintegration into chaos precariously easy, but director Ina Marlowe keeps this Touchstone Theatre production firmly under control at all times.

The sterling cast--from Great Britain but not strictly Irish, as O'Neill had specified in the actors who created the roles--deliver portraits drawn with exquisite restraint, maintaining their heroic stature without ever spilling over into excess. Nowhere is this more evident than in the performances of Larry Hart as Phil Hogan and Nick Polus as Tyrone. A misanthropic hick and a poetic drunk are always good for a cheap laugh, but Hart and Polus never allow their characters to lose more dignity than they'll be able to reclaim an instant later. At the center of the action, however, is the all-powerful and all-merciful Josie; Melinda Moonahan is an actress with "a face like her native soil," as the Irish compliment goes, and her Josie has the epic endurance befitting a matriarchal icon. Providing able support in minor roles are Ron Livingston as the last departing Hogan son and Kendall Marlowe as the neighbor the Hogans have pestered. (The audience seemed to thoroughly enjoy seeing this moneyed fop jerked around, even by such reprobates as Hogan and his daughter--an interesting comment on our times.)

Kevin Snow's set is brutally accurate, right down to the peeling tar paper at the threshold of the Hogans' ramshackle abode, as is his lighting in a masterfully scumbled sunrise. Evan Chen's original music captures perfectly the Gaelic roots beneath the New World setting.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Larry hart.


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