Liv Ullmann, who played the part in Oslo in 1976, talked about Josie Hogan, and her night spent outside–“where she has him [James Tyrone, Jr.] on the stairs in her lap”–as being almost her “favorite moment in theatre.” She speaks for so many of us who love A Moon for the Misbegotten, now playing at the Pearl Theatre Company until April 15, a masterpiece that, when talking about O’Neill, is not immediately mentioned along with Long Day’s Journey Into Night or The Iceman Cometh. This may have to do with problematic first productions.  Harold Clurman felt that O’Neill and the Theatre Guild made the part too difficult to cast for the tryout tour in 1947 (the play was written in 1943): “They insisted that . . . Josie Hogan be acted by someone of Irish blood who is ‘almost a freak—five foot eleven in her stockings and weighs about one hundred and eighty.’”  The actress, as stipulated in her contract, had to agree “to gain the necessary weight required for the role”—which may have had to do with her untimely death once the show was abandoned on the road.  According to Laura Shea, in A Moon for the Misbegotten on the American Stage (McFarland, 2008), in Pittsburgh, the actor playing Josie’s father, Phil (J. M. Kerrigan), quit, calling the play anti-Irish.  In Detroit the words “whore” and “bastard” had to be replaced to satisfy the police censor.  Even today, you’ll wince at how Josie is talked about, when she is called a “slut” and “cow.”  Josie, who proclaims that she has “the right to be free,” is perhaps, always misunderstood by men as a loose woman or madonna, even as she allows herself to give love in a personal act of bravery.

Of course, the part is a gold standard for actresses: Ullmann and, among others, Kate Nelligan, Cherry Jones, and Colleen Dewhurst (who introduced many of us to Josie, as well as to serious, accessible, professional theatre—even if it was on TV).  What’s so important to communicate, as the Pearl Theatre Company ends its 2011-2012 season (which has included distinctive interpretations of Ionesco, Shakespeare, and Shaw), is that Josie, despite the difficulty of casting her, has again been found.  Kim Martin-Cotten makes the ungainly, “huge elephant” (as Ullmann called her) beautiful for her one night with James.  Her hair is usually unkempt, she’s bare-legged for much of the play, but Martin-Cotton’s work is very specific–watch her hands and outstretched arms.  The voice is deep like a Dewhurst, her hair, Irish flame. O’Neill asks the cast to go to many interior places in the surprisingly smooth unraveling of A Moon for the Misbegotten, despite its various influences.  He also asks them to be funny, which may be construed as un-O’Neillian and maybe part of the reason for the work’s under-evaluation (it lasted only 68 performances when it first came to Broadway).  You’ll notice this early in the first act (when you’re wondering if this is going to be a slight play). You can also see why Kerrigan may have taken offence at the corny blarney (about fighting Irish and pigs and ice ponds—which are also used in Long Day’s Journey Into Night).  You might believe O’Neill is thinking Punch and Judy (in the father-daughter relationship), Elizabethan comedy (he proposes a bed trick), or his father’s melodrama (with the element of the farm being sold—even though what’s in melodrama can, of course, actually happen in real life).  But the author is really getting ready to strip:  A Moon for the Misbegotten might be a summation of technique and maybe of a career in the theatre (it was O’Neill’s last play), but it’s also about facades and the existential blackness behind them. The characters act for each other: Josie as a slut for the town, she and her father as yokels for a pansy, Harder, from next door, as well as in front of James (the landlord and drunk Josie is smitten with). James, himself, acts in trying to scare the father and daughter with regard to land, as well as in what he is to women during sex. What’s so insightful in O’Neill, and can be missed in this play, which is so much about this magnificent female role, is that he sees the shortcomings of men—he sees their difficulties with how they would ever find intimacy, but not in a sense as to blame them.      

The real basis for Josie, at least in part, was not Irish at all.  She was Danish, “self conscious of her bulk and [someone who] made fun of herself,” as Arthur and Barbara Gelb tell us in O’NeillLife with Monte Cristo.  Christine Ell (“like Josie, she was convinced she was basically unattractive to men”), was influenced by Emma Goldman, and once confided in tears, regarding her infidelities to her husband, “Why is it that I must act as I do?  I long to have a perfect lover, one that satisfies me. [My husband] doesn’t know how to express himself to me. . . . When I see how far away he is I cannot stand it.” In A Moon for the Misbegotten Josie hears a man talk as nakedly as he can.  In her, O’Neill seems to be giving his real brother, who died of alcoholism at age 45, the chance to form a loving relationship with a woman who was not a prostitute (O’Neill’s real brother goaded Eugene into visiting a brothel at age 16).  You’ll be impressed by the actor Andrew May in the Pearl’s production—he’s not a completely wiped-out drunk.  He really has seen salvation slip between his fingers.  He is a James who deserves his love with Josie.  He is a James who can find a sober man's tears.

O’Neill, like Ibsen, wrote plays as if he was building battleships.  A Moon for the Misbegotten may be funnier, and even more charming, than what we typically expect from the Nobelist. Nevertheless, this production uses two intermissions and runs for over three hours. Don’t expect not to be shocked, not to be moved, not to watch hurt, not to feel a beautiful moment in theatre. I never found the play quite as profound before.  J. R. Sullivan directs. Kern McFadden and Sean McNall also star.

© by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

Photo: Kim Martin-Cotten (Josie Hogan) and Andrew May (James Tyrone) Credit: Jacob J. Goldberg.

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