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A full "Moon' on stage

There are two sides to Jim Tyrone, the tragic figure at the center of A Moon for the Misbegotten, Eugene O'Neill's melancholy masterpiece now at American Stage.

One side of Tyrone is the alcoholic, broken-down Broadway sport, ending his life in a boozy fog but reaching out for one last, desperate attempt at redemption. In this regard, Ned Averill-Snell is entirely persuasive, a beefy Irish lug, stuffed into a chalk-striped maroon suit, his thinning hair slicked back in a rakish pompadour. You can almost see the whiskey oozing from his pores.

When Averill-Snell collapses into the arms of the woman Jim looks to for salvation, Josie Hogan (Julie Rowe), his tenant farmer's good-hearted daughter, and his head rolls back in a swoon to take in the intoxicating moonlight, all the fine words of the play are rendered moot in an eloquent moment of silence. This wreck of a man has found a kind of peace.

In Jim Tyrone, O'Neill created one of literature's best portrayals of a drunk in his disastrous final days. Perhaps its only equal is Malcolm Lowry's stream-of-consciousness novel Under the Volcano, made into a movie with Albert Finney as the doomed diplomat. Averill-Snell captures the destructiveness of his character well. When Jim, drifting in and out of consciousness, moans to Josie _ "There have been too many nights _ and dawns" _ it is deeply moving.

But there's also a poetic, riotous side to Jim _ he enters reciting Latin verse, after all _ and that's lost in this somewhat clinical performance that emphasizes the depressive souse over the barroom raconteur. The reality of alcoholism demands a certain amount of sodden characterization, but where's the hammy charm that makes Jim worth caring about?

Rowe is eminently lovable as Jim's flinty madonna, though she is far too fetching to be O'Neill's "rough, ugly cow of a woman," even in a shapeless dress and work boots. Josie is the one character in the play who changes _ from club-wielding spitfire to a woman getting in touch with her feelings _ and Rowe communicates that beautifully in her "moonlight date" with Tyrone. "Maybe my love could still save you," she whispers, gently stroking his hair, a portrait in codependency.

Loring Stevenson, a ginger-bearded leprechaun of an actor, is uncannily right as Josie's scheming father, Phil Hogan. The small roles of brother Mike Hogan (T. Scott Wooten) and millionaire T. Stedman Harder (Harry Richards) are adequately played.

Director Todd Olson and his creative team have done a great job in depicting this little world. The Hogans' shanty is brilliantly realized in the design of David M. Fillmore Jr., who has filled the stage with a truckload of stones. Joseph P. Oshry is responsible for the subtle lighting, such as the charcoal-gray dawn that greets Josie and Jim after their night of truth telling. The costumes of Amy J. Cianci, highlighted by Tyrone's superbly ridiculous suit, are excellent. Andrew Hopson's sound design is full of nice, lonely touches, from a dog barking in the night to the sound of a train in the distance.

One of the production's most distinctive elements, recordings of three songs between scenes by Almeda Riddle, is also problematic. It's wonderful to hear the plaintive, earthy voice of Riddle, an Arkansas balladeer born in 1898, but it seems odd to feature music of the rural South in a play set in New London, Conn.