By the Light of the Moon

When unconditional love becomes unrequited love

Feb 19, 2003 at 4:00 am
Female breasts evoke nurture and sex, the Madonna and the whore. These opposing images create conflict in Eugene O'Neill's Moon for the Misbegotten, in which a breast-obsessed Jamie Tyrone has a midnight tryst with the amply bosomed Josie Hogan. Their awkward attempts to come together create one of the most heartrending scenes in American drama and make up the finest moments in this West End Players Guild production.

Moon for the Misbegotten is anchored by the strong performance of Teresa Doggett as Josie. O'Neill's characters immediately invite mythic and religious comparisons. Josie is Diana, moon goddess of the hunt; Demeter, Mother Earth; Eve the original temptress; and the Virgin Mother, all rolled into one feisty Irish pig farmer's daughter who really wants to be Aphrodite. Doggett manages to make this megamythic character into a real person: a large woman who covers her self-loathing with boasts of multiple lovers, a misunderstood soul with a generous heart and more brains than any of the men in the play.

Jamie is Dionysus with the DT's, a washed-up actor who describes himself as having "the melancholy of ten Hamlets." O'Neill's most famous work, Long Day's Journey Into Night, features the Tyrone family's descent into hopelessness -- Moon for the Misbegotten is a coda to that play, following Jamie's plunge into despair and the bottle after his mother's death. Jamie is challenging character; haunted by his life of whores and whiskey, he spends most of the play trying to make sense of his desire for Josie, moving rapidly through mood swings and unrelenting memories. Gerry Love is not always up for Jamie's abrupt transitions but touches us deeply in his moments of despair.

O'Neill's lengthy script has been pruned but could have been cut further. Passages about Jamie's various kinds of drunken behavior could have been compressed. The repeated references to Jamie's women and Josie's "rough talk" become tiresome. We want to get to the climactic encounter in Act 3, when Josie and Jamie finally bare their hearts under the moon's cold gaze, and the opening acts sometimes seem to slow our journey unnecessarily.

When we finally arrive at the much-anticipated scene, we move clearly into the virgin/whore dilemma: Josie dresses for her moonlight date in a Madonna-blue dress, exposing the "beautiful breasts" Jamie has so often admired. Doggett skillfully maneuvers Josie through blustery bravado about her sexuality to an honest confession of her virginity. As they move closer to making love, Jamie's dark side emerges, crushing Josie's hopes. (This pivotal moment was ruined by an audience member's cell phone, blaring "Für Elise." It may be time for monetary penalties for such audience offenses.)

In a moment of clarity keenly portrayed by Doggett, Josie realizes that Jamie needs her to be his confessor. He needs absolution. "I have all kinds of love for you," she tearfully reveals, "and maybe this is the greatest of all because it costs so much." She sacrifices her dream of physical love to give Jamie the peace of forgiveness. She becomes the mother he has been searching for, the maternal breast of unconditional love.

Unlike Long Day's Journey Into Night, this play ends with dawn and the hope of a new day. This hope is short-lived for Jamie. He is momentarily changed but cannot stay with Josie now that she knows his darkest shame. Love and Doggett play this final scene with honest emotion, and Love's haunted eyes reveal that he has not received "God's promise of peace," as Josie had wished. Doggett's final moments alone onstage reveal Josie's newfound pride mixed with sorrow. She returns to her life a changed woman.

The angular earthy set and evocative music invite us into this world of archetypal love quests gone awry. Director Steve Callahan moves the actors beautifully around the set, creating stage pictures that illuminate the characters' conflicts. Be patient through the early parts of this play, because O'Neill's lyricism and Doggett's performance are worth the wait.