Pillbox

O’Neill’s play comes to Pittsburgh

Beth Wittig makes her debut as the Hogan family daughter Josie. (credit: Courtesy of Margie Romero) Beth Wittig makes her debut as the Hogan family daughter Josie. (credit: Courtesy of Margie Romero)

Humor, unrequited love, and dreams from the past: These are the main components of one of the world’s great dramas, Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten. Completed in 1943 and premiered to ecstatic audiences in London’s prestigious Old Vic Theatre in 1947, this play is O’Neill’s final work after 32 full-length dramas and 19 one-act plays. Under the critically acclaimed director Pamela Berlin, Pittsburgh Public Theater’s production of A Moon for the Misbegotten will be premiering downtown in the O’Reilly Theater on April 16th. With a fresh cast that includes the talented Beth Wittig as Josie in her Pittsburgh Public Theater debut, this O’Neill production is one that you won’t want to miss.

A Moon for the Misbegotten is a drama steeped in history. While O’Neill wrote this sequel to his Long Day’s Journey into Night, a heart-wrenching play about his dysfunctional family while he was a young man, he was in unbearable pain. In his old age, O’Neill developed Parkinson’s disease, making the act of writing nearly impossible for him. As mentioned in the The Eugene O’Neill Review, in addition to his physical ailments, O’Neill wrote to his son, “Last week I finished the first draft of a new play, A Moon for the Misbegotten. A good title, eh? ... Much work to do before it will be anything. A case of too much war on the brain. Pearl Harbor exploded when I was starting the most difficult part.” As World War II was raging, O’Neill was struggling physically and mentally in an attempt to capture the nature of his brother, James Tyrone Jr., and an epic story of longing.

Set in 1923 on a Connecticut farm, O’Neill’s saga follows the journey of an ensemble of lost souls, including a sly Irishman Phil Hogan (Tom Atkins), his confrontational son Mike (Jason McCune), and his daughter Josie. The Hogans work the farmland that belongs to James (Victor Slezak), a broken-down poetic actor who travels like a ghost through his old Broadway haunts and bars. When T. Stedman Harder (Daniel Krell), James’ wealthy oil tycoon neighbor and landlord, threatens to buy James’ property due to James’ pigs’ drinking from Harder’s pond, James doesn’t initially oppose the idea. This causes the Hogans to devise a complicated scheme that involves trapping James into marrying Josie, whom James often flirts with when he is around the farm.

Taking on the famous O’Neill drama style, heart-wrenching passion and sorrow is exposed on one moonlit night when Josie begins her seduction of James. By the morning, what was once pretense has become authentic, and while some souls have been cleansed, others have become more troubled. O’Neill’s drama is well known for its ability to reach staggering emotional depth with humor and passion while taking place, for the majority of the time, on a single moonlit night.

Although A Moon for the Misbegotten is an intense tragedy, it still has O’Neill’s famous humorous tint and subtle message of hope. As producer, Lawrence Langer, was quoted saying in the The Eugene O’Neill Review after receiving O’Neill’s drama, “the play has, in its final act, and at the end of the second act, the spiritual uplift which is the characteristic quality of all tragedies, and along with it is such a profound knowledge of the good and evil in humanity.” Such enigmatic work poses difficulties for the cast.

Atkins, famous for his role as the Irishman, Art Rooney Sr., in The Chief, finds the comic but necessary role of Phil Hogan to be challenging. Atkins believes that “Phil is the engine of the play” and that Phil is difficult to portray because “you have to get as many smiles and laughs from the audience as you can without being a clown. Phil certainly isn’t a clown.”

Wittig will also be tested in her part as Josie. O’Neill calls for a physically large woman to play this part, and Wittig needs to have an Irish sense of wit despite the play’s American setting. She is excited, however, to make her debut with such an emotionally provocative and beautiful play. With the Pittsburgh Public Theater’s terrific reputation and the cast’s excitement about this saga, one can be confident that this production of the mournful and spiritually uplifting A Moon for the Misbegotten will be thoughtful and powerful.