Sterling Theatre

at Talman Theatre

When I first saw Long Day’s Journey Into Night, on TV when I was in the eighth grade, I was spellbound, literally unable to turn away from the set–even though at every moment I wanted to flip the blasted set off and run screaming from the house. Last week I had a similar experience at Sterling Theatre’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s sequel to Long Day’s Journey, A Moon for the Misbegotten. For three and a half acts (the play ends with a lengthy epilogue) I found myself lost in O’Neill’s–and Sterling Theatre’s–world. At no time, however, did I want to run screaming from the house.

Quite the opposite, in fact. When the three hours were up, I was disappointed the play had ended so quickly. Of course A Moon for the Misbegotten is not nearly as dark as Long Day’s Journey, dealing as it does with the themes of forgiveness and redemption instead of mucking around with accusation, damnation, and long-festering resentments.

O’Neill’s last completed play, written in 1943, A Moon for the Misbegotten is very much the work of a man trying to come to grips with death, not just his own death–though there is plenty of that going on in the work–but also the deaths of his parents and his eldest brother, James. All three deaths figure in the story, though Jamie’s sits squarely at the center of the plot.

Set in 1923, the year O’Neill’s brother died of the effects of acute alcoholism, A Moon for the Misbegotten picks up, 11 years later, on the story of Jamie Tyrone begun in Long Day’s Journey. James Jr. now lives alone in the world–his parents are dead, and his younger brother Edmund (Eugene’s fictionalized self) is never mentioned. His only apparent friends are a pair of rascally shanty Irish, Phil Hogan and his daughter, Josie, who rent some property from him.

The story begins as a light romantic comedy–the thrust seems to be the uniting of a pair of unlikely misfits, the tough, smart-mouthed Josie and the wealthy, Jesuit-educated James. But the tone becomes more serious as Josie slowly catches on, during the second and third acts, to how lost and screwed-up James is. Ultimately Josie finds she can do little but offer slight comfort to a dying man, already dead in spirit. She spends the night holding him in her arms like a baby.

Any connection between this image and Michelangelo’s Pieta is purely intentional. Josie, like a Madonna, in this scene dispenses mercy and redemption. Still, once O’Neill has created the religious mood, he cannot help but undercut it with a very Irish quip. “God forgive me,” Josie says to no one, “it’s a fine end to all my scheming, to sit here with the dead hugged to my breast, and the silly mug of the moon grinning down, enjoying the joke!”

With her handsome Nordic features and slender build, Kirsten Sahs hardly fits O’Neill’s description of Josie Hogan: “almost a freak–five feet eleven . . . one hundred and eighty . . . able to do the manual labor of two men.” Nevertheless she makes, by virtue of her energy and obvious commitment to her role, an utterly convincing Josie. Commitment, however, is too weak a word. Sahs’s performance as Josie is so spontaneous, so organic, so inspired that the actress actually seems at times possessed by Josie’s spirit.

None of the other actors in the show comes close to the level of Sahs’s performance, nor does anyone have to, since Sahs carries the show as she simultaneously steals it. Michael P. Byrne, who plays Josie’s impish father, comes closest to taking the show back. His playfulness, his willingness to cut loose onstage and have as much fun as possible, reminded me of something I heard Del Close say once: it’s amazing how good actors can be when they allow themselves to be playful. Rick Reardon’s aptly doleful and depressive James Tyrone makes a nice contrast to Sahs’s and Byrne’s high-spirited Hogans.

For three hours I sat utterly absorbed in O’Neill’s play, awestruck by the playwright’s skill. For Sterling Theatre, which is less than a year old, to have brought this difficult text to life says a great deal about this young company.