OSHKOSH, Wis. (WFRV) – Eugene O’Neill is a famed name/personality in American theater, but his work seldom surfaces in this region. So a production of “A Moon for the Misbegotten” by University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh Theatre is an opportunity to check out a certain way of approaching a play from an earlier era of serious theater.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the production is the university’s first live, in-person venture since November 2019.
“We’re so glad you’re here,” director Jane Purse-Wiedenhoeft earnestly told the opening-night audience Thursday from the main stage of the Theatre Arts Center.
The play is dense.
Long stretches of dialogue between two people cover a lot of ground – which tends to be rocky, winding and/or filled with potholes. Potholes = lies, drunkenness, deceptions.
The first section is akin to dark comedy. Lines flow like twisty-turny, tightly wrapped humor. When a fellow is called a tick, he offers, “I never picked one off of me that was a hypocrite.” The fellow, a farmer, talks about how his neighbor’s attractive nuisance of a pond tempted his pigs to their demise; in calculating the loss in money, he adds funeral expenses for his pigs. When the fellow’s verbal abuse of his grown daughter trends toward becoming physical, he notes that his daughter’s defense is “so cowardly she has to use a club.” There is much more of this wry beyond wry.
A major section is drama, a high-test kind that sweeps through morality, love and confession fueled to a great deal by gulps of bonded bourbon – enough to make getting from “A” to “B” akin to a hike up Mount Everest.
The play, which saw the light of day on Broadway in 1947, looks back to 1923 in rural Connecticut. The pace is unhurried. The style is built for absorbing statements, observations and dilemmas of the characters. That style is not common today, so inventive blocking to give players motion on the spacious stage catches attention.
“A Moon for the Misbegotten” is about love. For that simple, single word, Eugene O’Neill delves and mines complications galore.
Josie Hogan is in love with a single man, but she lets everyone believe she has been anything but virtuous. There’s a whole lot of playing around with that last word, so earthiness abounds in what’s called “rough talk.”
James Tyrone Jr. is in love, but he’s rowing his course to its bounties over a sea of alcohol. When the play is set – 1923 – Prohibition is on, so James Tyrone Jr. has to be dedicated to pull off his feat of being blotto big time.
Phil Hogan loves his daughter. His kind of love comes with trickery not of sleigh of hand but sleight of truth.
The student cast members throw themselves at a demanding task, and director Jane Purse-Wiedenhoeft has them staying the course with consistency and color, such as an Irish dialect when needed.
Alyssa Wodack is on stage every minute as Josie.
First, it’s with Josie’s brother, Mike (Jordan Whitrock), who offers her a sure-fire plan for the future before he makes his escape from their hard-headed father.
Next, it’s with her father (Max Benitz), whose lists of hates start with the English and Standard Oil, and unloads drunkard quips and jokes while conniving “a beautiful day for the poor and oppressed.”
Next, it’s the headache of a neighbor, T. Stedman Harder (Rory Sherrod), who ends up being a fancy pants Josie and her father ridicule.
And then, it’s James Tyrone Jr. (Drake Hansen), who is super-complex as the family’s landlord who happens to be a Broadway actor who loves bourbon and Josie… and his recently deceased mother. In the heat of James’ drama, Drake Hansen impressively rolls through a monologue that goes on and on as if he were an articulate drunk on a roll.
The costuming and the run-down look of the farm reflect the characters’ situations.
Much care goes into the acting by Alyssa Wodack, Max Benitz and Drake Hansen.
The production is a window on the depth and darkness of Eugene O’Neill, along with his rare facets. The solid performances help open that window, to meet Eugene O’Neill “in person” perhaps – like me – for the first time.
Creative: Playwright – Eugene O’Neill; director – Jane Purse-Wiedenhoeft; assistant director – Matt Peplinski; costume designer – Zane Kealey; lighting and sound design – Mark Spitzer; scenic design – Scott Wirtz-Olsen; technical director – Mark Spitzer; production stage manager – Kev Kollmann; production assistant stage manager – Kyle Klein; scene shop assistants – Leeann Hershey, Kyle Klein, Matt Peplinski; scenery construction – Drake Hansen; props – Leeann Hershey; costume shop supervisor – Jeanne Oost
Josie Hogan – Alyssa Wodack
James Tyrone Jr. (landlord and friend) – Drake Hansen
Phil Hogan (Josie’s father) – Max Benitz
Mike Hogan (Josie’s brother) – Jordan Whitrock
T. Stedman Harder (neighbor to Hogans) – Rory Sherrod
Understudy/Swing – Aaron Stone
Running time: Two hours, 48 minutes
Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 8, 9, 15, 16 and 2 p.m. Oct. 17
NEXT: “A Bear in Winter” by Richard Kalinoski, Nov. 11-13, 19-21.
THE VENUE: The 498-seat Theatre Arts Center, formerly Fredric March Theatre, includes a traditional proscenium (flat front stage) that’s 40 feet wide by 16 feet high. Built in 1971, the theater is located in the heart of the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh campus. The exterior features a 1970s era UW campus architectural style that embraces cement, in this case the cement reminiscent of geometric trees supporting a flat roof on the glass-enclosed entry and lobby. The interior features honeycombed red-brick walls and a slightly arcing seating area with no center aisle, with a general impression of closeness to the stage, which is especially wide. Leg room is abundant. The acoustics are crisp for the spoken voice in plays.