In the second of its five-year Eugene O'Neill retrospective, the Irish Classical Theatre has once again mounted an admirable production that comes up short of perfection.
Brother Augstine Towey's simple, straight-ahead and wise direction points this play in precisely the right direction. Two of its leads, Catherine Eaton and Gerry Maher, embody the sort of father-daughter chemistry that most real-life counterparts couldn't hope to. But other parts of the show are underdeveloped, effectively reducing O'Neill's potentially earth-shattering message of forgiveness to a mere cliche.
"A Moon for the Misbegotten," the last play O'Neill completed, takes place across one sordid evening on a dilapidated Connecticut farm. Towey's description of the play in the program notes as a sort of platonic love triangle is dead-on. It focuses on the complex relationship among a daughter, her father, and the man she loves.
At the outset, we see Josie Hogan (Eaton), a strong-willed and brazen woman, bidding good-bye to her brother Mike (Tim Eimiller), who can no longer stand the tyrannical reign of their scheming father, Phil Hogan (Maher). The first act is more sketch comedy than emotionally wrought drama and is well worth the price of admission in itself.
Amid Lynne Koscielniak's spare but effective set, we see Phil and Josie Hogan embark on one of the more entertaining father-daughter exchanges in modern drama. Eaton's looks and composure far outshine O'Neill's buxom description of her character, but suspending disbelief at her brazen nature is easily done and rewarded tenfold with a strong, assured and valiant performance. Her swagger and voice alone -- not to start on what she says with it -- are enough to make the most tyrannical father quake in his boots.
As for Maher, the unscrupulous man whom Josie says would "swear on a Bible while you're stealin' it," slings O'Neill's impressive collection of barbs and insults like a consummate curmudgeon. When he delivers lines like ". . . land that's watered with the tears of starving widows and orphans" or calls his deserting son a "pious lump," he does so with dead-on seriousness and perfect timing. And when Maher and Eaton get together, it's a sheer delight.
But then we come to Jim Tyrone, Josie's love interest and a broken man inexorably haunted by his sordid past. He seeks forgiveness, which is just the thing Josie is in a position to provide.
Brian Riggs puts a moribund and charmless spin on Tyrone, one that takes O'Neill's prescription of "a dead man walking slow behind his own coffin" a bit too literally. He might also have noted that O'Neill wrote of Tyrone in the script that "It is his humor and charm which have kept him attractive to women, and popular with men as a drinking companion."
Most of that humor, and all of the charm, remains walled up behind a tedious delivery that falls somewhere between Vincent Price and HAL 9000, the computer from "2001: A Space Odyssey." (Think: "I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that.")
Someone might have told Riggs, otherwise a competent and talented performer, that it is wholly possible to exude the feeling of death without so closely mimicking an actual corpse.
The end effect is that audiences feel that the central character of Tyrone, so lifeless and unlikable and robotic, doesn't remotely merit the forgiveness he receives.
And that's a lousy way to leave it.
"A Moon for the Misbegotten"
Drama presented through Dec. 2 by the Irish Classical Theatre Company in Andrews Theatre, 625 Main St.
For more information, call 853-4282 or visit www.irishclassicaltheatre.com.