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STAGE REVIEW

Flawed characters shine in ‘Moon’

Will McGarrahan and Ramona Lisa Alexander in the Nora Theatre Company’s “A Moon for the Misbegotten.’’ Will McGarrahan and Ramona Lisa Alexander in the Nora Theatre Company’s “A Moon for the Misbegotten.’’ (Elizabeth Stewart)
By Terry Byrne
Globe Correspondent / October 16, 2010

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CAMBRIDGE — Eugene O’Neill embraces extremes, the more dramatic, the better. The beauty and brilliance of “A Moon for the Misbegotten’’ lies in his ability to craft a delicate balance between these extremes, and to show the heartache beneath his characters’ bluster.

The play asks a great deal of actors: They must start out full-tilt and then peel back the layers of their characters, a challenge the Nora Theatre’s ensemble struggles with at first, then warms to for O’Neill’s extraordinarily transformative climax.

As the play opens, Josie Hogan (Ramona Lisa Alexander) is kicking her youngest brother Mike (Luke Murtha) off the bleak, rock-strewn excuse for a farm in Connecticut her family calls home. She boots him out, as she did to her two other brothers, resolving to stay behind with her scheming father, Phil (Billy Meleady). Despite Josie’s generous effort to push her brother off the farm for a chance at a better life, she presents herself to the world as a trash-talking slut who’s slept with every man in the county. Alexander, one of the gems of the Boston theater scene, is too beautiful to play a “big, ugly cow of a woman’’ so her Josie is more pig-headed than pig-faced, and her final scene transformation is more subtle, but no less wondrous.

Meleady plays her hard-drinking, big-talking, lazy excuse for a father with more mischief than malice. When his daughter describes him as a schemer who’d wake up in the middle of the night to pick his own pockets, it’s clear he’s not dangerous. Together, Phil and Josie are a formidable pair, who delight in the opportunity to verbally humiliate their neighbor, the wealthy and pompous T. Stedman Harder (Wayne Fritsche). Although they threaten violence, the two clearly enjoy the verbal jabs and Harder’s inability to keep up with them.

Into this simple life comes James Tyrone, Jr. (Will McGarrahan), the Hogans’ landlord and a dissolute, “third-rate ham.’’ Tyrone is killing himself with booze, filled with unresolved guilt and regret for his dead mother and resentment and anger toward his dead father. But Josie is sweet on Tyrone, and the feeling might be mutual, except that alcohol has numbed all of his emotions. McGarrahan plays Tyrone as a brittle dandy, one whose suave veneer could crack at any second. As the play unfolds, we watch Tyrone dissolve and Josie slowly let down her guard, and the tenderness both feel for each other gives the piece an unexpected fragility.

O’Neill’s script soars with breathtaking poetry as Tyrone references God and the angels while seeking forgiveness for his sins. The play’s redemptive final scene digs beneath the limitations and loneliness of these characters to discover how powerful the gift of love can be — even if it is only for one moonlit night.

O’Neill is specific in his description of the stage, but set designer Anthony R. Phelps takes it too literally. The tenant shack is too realistic, and placing the property’s boulders at exact angles makes the actors struggle to navigate through the first act. Director Richard McElvain, too, takes a very disciplined approach to the play, which hems in the actors’ ability to plumb the depths of these flawed but compassionate people.

Fortunately, this cast is so strong, they break through any restrictions and transport us so that we feel a sense of absolution.

Terry Byrne can be reached at trbyrne@aol.com

A MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN

Play by Eugene O’Neill

Directed by: Richard McElvain. Sets, Anthony R. Phelps. Costumes, Gail Astrid Buckley. Lights, Margo Caddell. Sound design and composition, Dewey Dellay. Presented by the Nora Theatre Company.

At: Central Square Theater, through Nov. 7. Tickets: $15-40. 866-811-4111, www.cental squaretheater.org