Review by Sean McQuaid
The gaps in your scattershot scribbler’s education are both a blessing and a curse. It’s a curse in the sense that there are plenty of literary classics I just haven’t gotten around to yet — too busy watching Doctor Who or hunting Black Lightning back issues or some such thing (and no regrets on either count) — but a blessing in the sense that even now, past the midway point of my likely lifespan, I can experience the joy of discovering iconic stories for the first time.
The consistently excellent Watermark Theatre is a superb supplier of that particular drug, helping audiences discover or rediscover theatrical classics every summer. This year’s offerings include a play I already knew and liked (a very fine production of Dial M for Murder) and a play I’d long heard of but had never seen before: Eugene O’Neill’s 1943 tragicomedy A Moon for the Misbegotten. As skillfully staged here, O’Neill’s smart, incisive script lives up to its lustrous reputation — earthily human yet poignantly philosophical, slyly funny but hauntingly sad.
A sequel of sorts to O’Neill’s quasi-autobiographical A Long Day’s Journey into Night (written first but published/produced after Moon since O’Neill did not release Night during his lifetime), A Moon for the Misbegotten is set in 1920s Connecticut and revisits alcoholic actor James “Jim” Tyrone. O’Neill’s real-life brother Jamie (an alcoholic who died in his 40s) was the model for Jim Tyrone, who’s described by his most loving admirer in this play as shuffling through life “like a dead man walking slow behind his own coffin.”
That admirer is Josie Hogan (played here by PEI’s own Brielle Ansems), a brawny, hardworking, acid-tongued farm girl with a bad reputation and a good heart, the latter carefully concealed. Josie’s preachily pious brother Mike (Jacob Hemphill) is fleeing home like his brothers before him, tired of their hard-drinking, violent, demanding father Phil (a gruffly amusing Paul Cowling). When talk arises of the Hogan family’s friend and landlord Jim Tyrone (Geoffrey Pounsett) possibly selling the Hogans’ farmland to despised oil fortune heir T. Stedman Harder (Richard Beaune), Phil and Josie scheme to stop this by any means necessary, including Josie’s subsequent moonlit seduction of a drunken Jim.
Bill Layton’s handsome Dial M for Murder set is lavishly detailed but his Moon set is much more minimalist, dominated by the sketchily skeletal outlines of the Hogans’ ramshackle farmhouse and a large, lovely projected moon hanging over everything for much of the play. In this regard and others, Moon’s director Robert Tsonos (deftly doubling as a compellingly layered Tony Wendice in Dial M for Murder) strikes a tone of bittersweet beauty that permeates this production and lingers long after the actors’ final bows.
Speaking of actors, all this works as well as it does thanks to a solid cast, notably Ansems and Pounsett as the moonstruck lovers. Both roles as written are richly multi-faceted acting showcases, and the Ansems-Pounsett duo take full advantage to craft a charming, hilarious, disturbing, achingly melancholy stage romance you’ll remember for many moons to come.
—On stage at Watermark Theatre in North Rustico to August 31, 2018