NEW YORK — A girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do to win her man. Esteemed American playwright Eugene O'Neill, winner of four Pulitzer Prizes and the Nobel Prize for Literature, created a fierce literary heroine who does just that in his 1943 tragedy, "A Moon for the Misbegotten."
O'Neill's famous pair of awkward, star-crossed lovers, who face their greatest hopes and fears in an iconic moonlight scene, are well-served by The Pearl Theatre Company's gripping, current off-Broadway revival at New York City Center Stage II.
J.R. Sullivan has staged the lengthy production with sensitivity and a light touch. Set in 1923 Connecticut on a humble tenant farm, "Moon" is the story of single, rough-hewn farmer's daughter, Josie Hogan, (an outstanding Kim Martin-Cotten), and her secret love for her landlord, Jim Tyrone Jr., a would-be actor and haunted, abject alcoholic (a fine portrayal by Andrew May.)
Onstage the entire time, Martin-Cotten is a life-force to reckon with, luminous yet earthy, fierce and genuine. She strides confidently around the set as Josie initially bosses around her priggish youngest brother, Mike (Pearl regular Sean McNall).
Josie then argues, jokes and schemes with her comical, conniving father, Phil, with boisterous Irish humor, and joins him in a triumphant but ill-advised prank against their much-disliked neighbor, T. Stedman Harder (a nice turn by Kern McFadden.)
Dan Daily does a yeoman job as Phil Hogan, making him truly "a wicked old tick, as crooked as a corkscrew." Blustery in the first half, Daily becomes more nuanced as the play progresses and he can show Phil's caring side.
The Hogans devise a complicated plot to get Jim to sell them their rented farm property, or else trick him into marrying Josie. Their innocent scheming sets up the second half of the play and the famous nocturnal rendezvous scene between Josie and Jim, where she'll finally learn whether she has any hope of a future with him.
May is an understated, emotionally exhausted and movingly dissipated Jim. Drinking what seems like buckets of bourbon, he droops and mumbles confusedly to himself, while wretchedly trying to explain to Josie the guilt and despair that are driving him to an early, booze-addled death. Both actors have a gift for revealing the inner emotions beneath their characters' false masks of cheer.
Martin-Cotten is most wrenching as Josie seizes her final chance at happiness, desperately trying to comprehend and possibly save the man she loves, sadly describing him as being like "a dead man walking slow behind his own coffin."
The play clocks in at over three hours, including two brief intermissions, so there's plenty of time for the lovers' impossible longings to play out on the moonlit porch of the Hogan's ramshackle farmhouse (vital atmospheric lighting by Jaymi Lee Smith, and rustic set design by Jo Winiarski.)
As morning dawns, and Josie and Jim must part, this intimate, emotionally sumptuous production has warmly illuminated the dark and light shadings of one of O'Neill's final plays.