Eugene O'Neill took no pity on his actors.
And that's one of the reasons, said actor Catherine Eaton, that his work remains so intimate, powerful and raw.
Eaton, a New York City-based actor who last appeared in Buffalo in the 2005 production of Bryan Delaney's "The Cobbler," will appear as Josie Hogan in a production of O'Neill's classic "A Moon for the Misbegotten" from the Irish Classical Theatre Company.
"O'Neill is an incredibly powerful writer and an incredibly powerful playwright, but he is selfish with his actors. He demands extraordinary things from you," Eaton said.
In this, the last play O'Neill completed before his death in 1953, the themes, ideas and language center around forgiveness, love and deep sorrow among three characters in a small Connecticut town in the 1920s. The production is directed by Brother Augustine Towey, a Niagara University professor and longtime local theater director.
"We used to kid in rehearsals, there's a line in the stage directions where Catherine is to appear grief-ridden, happy, desperate and . . . four adjectives all contradicting one another. I said, 'I really want to see those four,' " Towey joked.
Looking beyond the stage notes, however, the play itself is saturated with meaning, housing a deep and affecting love story filled with the sort of conflict and epic pathos that are the playwright's inimitable trademarks.
"The play would probably never get by a contemporary dramaturge, but, that said, it's incredible what that does," Eaton said. "Each time you have to circle on that spiral, you have to think of another level. Every time you repeat those lines . . . another layer has to be peeled off the character."
The play takes place on one eventful evening at a dilapidated Connecticut farm. It centers around Phil Hogan (Gerry Maher), the deceptive owner of the farm; his brash and unapologetic daughter Josie; and Jim Tyrone (Brian Riggs), an alcoholic carouser who seeks comfort in Josie's larger-than-life persona and who served as the focus of "Long Day's Journey Into Night," produced by the Irish Classical last year.
"It really is a love triangle, in a sense," said Towey. "It's between Josie and Tyrone and Hogan, and they love each other."
As for the character of Josie, Eaton's respect for the role and for O'Neill's writing borders on the religious.
"I think she's frankly probably the most difficult part I've ever played," said Eaton, who has appeared in several regional productions and tours, most notably with the Guthrie Theatre's resident company.
"You've heard the phrase, 'A bull in a china shop.' She's a china shop in a bull. Her center is very fragile and very delicate, and yet she's built up this very sturdy exterior out of necessity, and out of love."
WHAT: "A Moon for the Misbegotten"
WHEN: Tonight through Dec. 2
WHERE: Andrews Theatre of the Irish Classical Theatre Company, 625 Main St.
TICKETS: $32 to $42
INFO: 853-4282 or irishclassicaltheatre.com