Eugene O'Neill was the most openly autobiographical of playwrights, especially in his last four plays, which include his masterpiece, Long Day's Journey into Night, and A Moon for the Misbegotten, now being performed at American Stage.
As the Encyclopedia Britannica puts it, "O'Neill's plays were written from an intensely personal point of view, deriving directly from the scarring effects of his family's tragic relationships _ his mother and father, who loved and tormented each other; his older brother, who loved and corrupted him and died of alcoholism in middle age; and O'Neill himself, caught and torn between love for and rage at all three."
Long Day's Journey and Moon share a character, James Tyrone Jr., an alcoholic actor modeled on O'Neill's brother, Jamie.
"A Moon for the Misbegotten is a play of resurrection," says Todd Olson, who directed it for American Stage. "O'Neill started writing it in the fall of 1941, even before he had finished Long Day's Journey. He knew he had been too hard on this character, his older brother, and so this became a story of redemption. He wanted to vindicate him."
In Moon, Jim Tyrone visits the tenants on a Connecticut farm he owns, Phil Hogan and his daughter, Josie. Tyrone tries to come to terms with his dissolute life by expressing his love for Josie, a large, plain woman who couldn't be less like him.
Ned Averill-Snell, playing Jim, says the difference between the character in Long Day's Journey into Night and A Moon for the Misbegotten is time. His father and mother are dead, and his brother is no longer a big part of his life.
"This is 10 years later and all those people are gone. For all intents and purposes, Jamie is now alone and at the end of his life. I think there's a big difference in how you wrestle with the pain and the conflict and the resentment of your family when they're still around and you're still trying to fight it out with them as opposed to when they're not. Once they're gone, that pain becomes a different thing that can't be resolved anymore."
Performances of O'Neill have been few and far between in the Tampa Bay area. Five years ago, Stageworks did A Moon for the Misbegotten. The most recent O'Neill at American Stage was Desire Under the Elms in 2000.
Moon is the most-often performed of his plays now. There are 10 notable productions in 2003 listed on the excellent Web site for the Electronic Eugene O'Neill Archive (www.eoneill.com), followed by six of the more demanding Long Day's Journey, including the starry Broadway production with Brian Dennehy and Vanessa Redgrave.
Olson, who has directed Long Day's Journey as well as played Jamie in it, thought there was something missing from the most recent Broadway revival of Moon, with Gabriel Byrne as Jim and Cherry Jones as his savior, Josie, in 2000.
"I felt like I could never get involved with the play because I didn't think Gabriel Byrne was willing to go to the dark place," he says. "This whole play is leading to one very deep-seated confession. You have to have an actor brave enough to go there."
Averill-Snell defines the dark place as regret. "It is looking at your life, summing up your life, knowing you're coming to the end of it and wishing that you'd done it differently. And having enormous, inconsolable regret over things you're ashamed of. They run over and over in your brain. You can't get rid of them, you can't wipe them clean. That's the dark place."
Julie Rowe plays Josie, a rough-hewn country woman whom O'Neill modeled on a New Yorker named Christine Ell, with whom he had a fling. "She is so oversize for a woman that she is almost a freak _ 5 feet 11 in her stockings and weighs around 180," the playwright wrote.
Rowe, whose costume will have some padding, is of average size. But then Colleen Dewhurst, the definitive Josie in a 1973 production with Jason Robards, was nowhere near O'Neill's description of the character's appearance either.
"Ultimately, you have to act this," Olson says.
"I find it interesting that what Josie struggles with in her perception of physicality is everything we still struggle with as women today," Rowe says. "I am not the size of Josie physically, but I understand what she feels when she looks in the mirror: Am I pretty enough? Am I thin enough? That self-doubt, that struggle for self-esteem, is something we all experience regardless of size."
The relationship between Josie and her father, a wily old Irishman (played by Loring Stevenson), has a comic, teasing flavor that is crucial to the play's effect. O'Neill warned that the sense of darkness needed to be kept in check.
"The trap is that you start playing the tragedy way too early and as soon as you get to the screaming and lamenting, you don't have a lot of places to go after that," Olson says. "I find Act 1 very funny, and then the play slowly changes. Act 3 is as heartbreaking as anything O'Neill ever wrote. It's a sort of dramaturgical bait and switch."
O'Neill thought Irishness was central to the play. "He said that the twists and turns in this are so intricate and _ he used the word mystical _ that only the Irish can understand it," Olson says.
As in other O'Neill plays, alcoholism runs through Moon like a red streak, just as it did through his family. Though today's 12-step recovery programs for addictions seem a long way from the playwright's tragic sensibility, there are some parallels.
Josie, for all her bluffness and bluster, is a classic enabler who tries to reason and bargain with the alcoholic men in her life. Tyrone is a destructive drunk who wants to make things right with his late mother through loving the good-hearted Josie.
"A Moon for the Misbegotten is certainly about making amends," Olson says, referring to a rubric of recovery. "It's certainly about acknowledging a problem, which is Step 1. It's certainly about the acknowledgement of a higher power. I don't think O'Neill was in any frame of mind to make that acknowledgement, but it certainly reverberates in his work."
Averill-Snell can view his character in 12-step terms _ with one key exception. He notes that O'Neill's brother essentially drank himself to death.
"What's important in terms of the difference between what Jamie is trying to accomplish and a 12-step program is that a 12-step program is about healing, about getting better, about not drinking anymore. There's no intention here not to drink anymore."
A Moon for the Misbegotten by Eugene O'Neill runs through Nov. 23 at American Stage, 211 Third St. S, St. Petersburg. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday. $22-$32. (727) 823-7529 or www.americanstage.org.