03/18/2012 12:12 pm ET Updated May 18, 2012

Luck of the Irish: The Pearl Theatre Company's A Moon for the Misbegotten

In many ways it should be no surprise that on the evening of St. Patrick's Day I found myself at The Pearl Theatre's production of A Moon for the Misbegotten. My Irish heritage and my theatrical leanings found the perfect synthesis in Eugene O'Neill's drama, which is rendered all the more alive and evocative through this excellent production. While the Irish, American-Irish, and Irish-for-today ate, drank, and were merry outside, we inside the theatre were reminded of the inner turmoil that can best hide behind just such carefree behavior.

Every time I read one of O'Neill's plays and then see it performed, I am struck by how well he was able to write for actors. There are playwrights who write for the stage in the sense of beautiful images, or even beautiful words, and though O'Neill has both of these in his plays, it is the characters in his plays that stick with you. This is certainly the case with Josie Hogan. This is an incredibly hard role to cast, as O'Neill's description of her as "so oversize for a woman that she is almost a freak" and other such instructions specify that she not only be physically large and strong, but also able to handle the emotionally demanding arc of the play.

The Pearl's current production is lucky enough to have Kim Martin-Cotten, whose performance is really quite amazing. Her physical and emotional manifestation of Josie's combination of tough laborer, brazen seductress, and shy schoolgirl made her performance incredibly compelling. Though Dan Daily does an excellent job as Josie's trickster father Phil Hogan and Andrew May is very well cast as the landlord and sometimes Broadway gambler Jim Tyrone, it is Martin-Cotten who sets and keeps the tone of the piece. This is simply the nature of the play, which keeps Josie on stage for all four acts without a single exit.

Director J.R. Sullivan is, of course, also to be commended for the solid and engaging acting in this play. Though it is a longer show, clocking in at just over three hours, the time seems to fly with ease. There are some comic moments, and even some fight scenes (well choreographed by Rod Kinter), but A Moon for the Misbegotten is not meant to catch the audience member with spectacle. My engrossment again speaks to the overall quality of the acting.

I was once again, as I have been in other O'Neill performances, pleasantly surprised at the production's willingness to play up the humor, especially in Hogan's dialogue. The audience was quick to laugh, and I found myself amazed at some of the more poignant moments where O'Neill had inserted quips. Some of these led to stage pictures where we laughed as a character cried, though we were not laughing at that character. Moments like this cut to the core of O'Neill for me, as I believe that many of plays are long treatises on this seemingly paradoxical action.

As I watched this production, two themes of the play presented themselves to me. The first is the concept of the "life lie." Like Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman tells his family and himself that he is a great salesman, the characters in Moon are in a constant struggle between the people they claim to be and the people they believe themselves to be. Indeed, this seems to be a particularly popular theme at the time, as these plays were both written in the 1940s.

Second is the divide between physical love and emotional love. These characters are more physically present than a lot of other O'Neill creations. They are constantly defining themselves and relating to each other by shows of bodily strength or weakness. Of course, these two thematic elements find their synthesis in Josie's reputation for sleeping with all of the local men, but the combination is also present in the other characters. These men and women fear their bodies and the potential violence that lives within them, and it is this fear that keeps them at a safe remove from each other.

Ghosts are mentioned a great deal in this play, and as I walked out of the theatre, onto the street littered with the remnants of another St. Patrick's Day, I was still carrying the characters with me. Released out into the night, I couldn't help but be happy, even though the play itself cannot be described with that moniker. The experience of watching such a good piece of theatre means that even though those within the play might not be so lucky, it's certainly the luck of the Irish to see this production.