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Moonstruck

The Alliance shines with a luminouse, lenghty Moon for the Misbegotten

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Originally staged in 1947, A Moon for the Misbegotten was Eugene O'Neill's last play, which never made it to Broadway in his lifetime. Moon may, nevertheless, mark the first play of contemporary American theater, but not for having a fluid, modernist approach to time and character. It's just the opposite, in fact, as O'Neill's people and their emotions seem as solid as the boulders of the farm on which the drama takes place. The extended two-character centerpiece of O'Neill's play, in which a pair of wounded souls share their feelings and Bourbon by moonlight, is very nearly a play within the play itself, and has become a cornerstone of stagecraft. The duet that dominates Moon anticipates future real-time dramas like Night, Mother and such love-among-the-ruined scripts as Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. That may be why Moon seems more oft produced than many O'Neill works, and it gets a lengthy but often luminous treatment by the Alliance Theatre.

O'Neill wrote Moon as a follow-up to his autobiographical, posthumously produced Long Day's Journey Into Night, offering instead a long night's journey into dawn. The only character the plays have in common is James Tyrone (Jeff Portell), a dissipated former actor with astonishing capacity for alcohol and self-destruction.

O'Neill focuses more closely on the Hogans, the Irish-American tenants on the rocky Connecticut farm owned by Tyrone. (Marjorie Bradley Kellog's evocative clapboard set looks even larger than the actual farmhouse would probably be.) Crusty father Phil (Jerry Hardin) is such a harsh taskmaster that he's driven his sons to seek their fortune elsewhere, with the third and final one (Matt Huff) taking flight in the play's first scene. But Phil has met his match and then some with his daughter Josie (Nance Williamson), a barefoot farm woman with fists on her hips and a reputation as a wanton.

The Hogans are known as brawlers and crooks, and Tyrone is forever amused by their shenanigans, as when Josie and Phil torment a snobbish neighbor (Christopher Ekholm). The landlord and laborers are all prone to congenial playacting and practical jokes, injecting the slightest bit of suspicion as to whether they're scheming or sincere at any given moment. But the father and son are spooked that Tyrone will accept a generous offer for the farm, leaving the Hogans homeless.

The Hogans hatch a plan to prey on Tyrone's boozing, his honor and his apparent affection for Josie: At a moonlit rendezvous, she'll get him drunk and arrange for Phil to catch them together, giving them leverage over their landlord. But Josie's feelings for the fallen swain run deeper than she lets on, and their meeting unfolds in ways other than any expect.

O'Neill always took his sweet time teasing out his stories and his characters' traits; Moon's predecessor, The Iceman Cometh, sprawls over more than four hours. Moon lacks the big-picture ambitions of Iceman and is the better for it, making the characters less prone to grand statements and more inclined to bare their souls in a tentative, natural way. "Tight" is not a word you would use to describe the Alliance's production, especially as it seems that every pertinent point is made at least twice.

Josie gives the play its heart, and her part can be tricky to cast, depending on how literally you take her self-descriptions as a "hulk" and a "bull." With Williamson in the role, Josie clearly has low self-esteem as far as her looks are concerned, erroneously assuming that just because she's as tough as a man, she cannot be feminine. But throughout the play her teeth flash endearingly as she smiles, and she cuts a lovely figure during the second act (wearing a purple dress that seems a bit too pretty considering the Hogan's income level). Proud and dignified, Williamson's Josie keeps a close watch over her feelings, proving all the more affecting when she reveals them late in the play.

In the role of Tyrone, Portell has perhaps a 90 percent success. He's effectively anguished, conveying the fading self-possession of a former thespian. But he can't disguise his own vitality, keeping the "corpse-like" Tyrone from seeming as ravaged as he should. Portell gives the role a deliberate stillness, and at his first appearance wears makeup that's excessively white, but never seems like a man with one foot in the grave.

You may know character actor Jerry Hardin as "Deep Throat" from "The X-Files," but you're not likely to recognize him beneath his Mark Twain whiskers as Phil. He's a classic "coot" of the stage, prone to fussin' and railin' like an Irish Yosemite Sam, but we grow to understand that Phil is partly performing for the entertainment of others. Hardin gives the role brief, unguarded moments -- initial shock at the knowledge that his son has run off, pain at remembering the death of his wife -- that show what lies beneath his bluster.

Moon may be the final production that Kenny Leon will direct for the Alliance Theatre's main stage. He doesn't overcome the drawn-out quality of the play's jokes or its interactions, and when characters talk about sleeping near the end, you'll be tempted to curl up in your own seat. But in fulfilling a longtime wish to bring Moon to the Alliance stage, Leon does justice to the pain and tenderness in Eugene O'Neill's final work, making his last play seem like a valediction.

A Moon for the Misbegotten plays through Nov. 4 at the Alliance Theatre, Woodruff Arts Center, 1280 Peachtree St., with performances at 8 p.m. Tuesdays - Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. $16-$45. 404-733-5000.

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