When the Theatre Guild premiered Eugene O’Neill’s THE ICEMAN COMETH in 1946, after O’Neill had withdrawn from the theatre some twelve years earlier, critic George Jean Nathan wrote, “The American theatre has a soul again.” I thought of that yesterday, when I saw the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s production of O’Neill’s MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN.
It’s easy to understand to see how O’Neill achieved sustained success in the Broadway of the 1920s and 30s. He is quite skillful in developing plots, as, for example, in MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN, he shows the tenant farmer Phil Hogan to buy his farm from his alcoholic landlord, James Tyrone. He mixes humor with pathos, and this play has many moments a humor in the interactions between Hogan and his brash spinster daughter, Josie.
But beneath all this skill, there is a depth too often lacking in the theatre. MOON tells of Tyrone’s long journey through pain and guilt to the absolution and unconditional love he receives from Josie. O’Neill’s plays are truly about the life of the soul.
The Williamstown production, shrewdly directed by Gordon Edelstein, is one worthy of this author. Audra McDonald, as Josie, is a great actress. But the other actors, including Will Swenson as Tyrone and Glynn Turman as Hogan, make for a uniformly strong cast.
Williamstown has become a springboard to Broadway, and my hope is that this production will also find its way there. The theatre needs more plays of this substance.