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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows. And we take the opportunity to explore other vintage productions preserved online. Until things return to normal we review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.

A Moon For The Misbegotten
ABC Television 1975 and YouTube  November 2022

My biggest and most exciting discovery this year in trawling through YouTube's vaults is this 1975 American television production reproducing a 1974 Broadway staging.

Eugene O'Neill's warmest and most love-infused drama stars the foremost O'Neill actor of the century along with an actress possibly even better than he, under the sensitive guidance of the director who almost single-handedly revived and restored O'Neill's posthumous reputation.

To be clear, I'm talking about A Moon For The Misbegotten, Jason Robards, Colleen Dewhurst and Jose Quintero.

Find it on YouTube and watch it. You'll thank me.

Unapologetically slutty Josie lives with her hard-working and hard-drinking father on a New England farm owned by ageing and alcoholic Broadway playboy Jim. Though landlord and tenants are friends, Josie and her father fear Jim will sell the farm out from under them and concoct a plot for her to seduce and then blackmail him into letting them have it.

But Josie has two secrets, which the play gives away early enough for me not to apologise for these spoilers. Despite her sluttish posing, she is actually a virgin, and despite her bawdy joking, she is deeply in love with Jim.

In the course of a drink- and moonlight-fuelled night she will realize that more than sex or even romance the guilt-ridden and self-hating Jim needs motherly comfort and forgiveness, and she will sacrifice her own desires to offer him some peace.

It is clear from that summary that, despite Jim being the star's role, the play is really Josie's.

Colleen Dewhurst was very much an actors' actor, widely respected and repeatedly awarded for her stage and television performances, though less known to the general public since her film appearances were generally in small supporting roles.

Here she demonstrates all her power, whether being intimidatingly big and broad as the shameless slut or deeply touching as she allows us glimpses into Josie's secret self.

While she might telegraph Josie's secrets, particularly the degree to which she adores Jim, a bit too early, the television camera lets us see what might be missed on stage the way every joke or hint of a kind word from him thrills her and every exposure of his own pains pains her.

Even in the sequences that are focused on him, and despite Jason Robards' brilliant performance, you find yourself watching her watching him, because she exposes so much by doing so little.

O'Neill scholars and fans know that Jim in this play is a figure who recurs in several others, sometimes under the same name, and that all are based on the playwright's brother.

By 1974 Jason Robards had played them all in Moon, Long Day's Journey Into Night, The Iceman Cometh and Hughie. He knew this man, and he could get inside him and show him to us without any flashy acting effects.

The actor's body language alone Josie describes Jim's entrance as 'like a dead man walking slow behind his own coffin' tells a lot. And the close-ups let us watch and appreciate how Robards makes his eyes and face go from spiritual deadness to vicious self-disgust and back.

In a long central section in which O'Neill takes the play away from Josie and gives it to Jim, Robards, while seeming to do very little, takes us into the soul of a man in a self-generated hell.

As much as you are drawn into the play itself, you will always be aware that you are watching two extraordinary actors at the peak of their powers. And that, of course, would be impossible without an extraordinary and sensitive director.

In the 1950s Jose Quintero resurrected O'Neill's reputation with powerful productions of The Iceman Cometh and Long Day's Journey (both starring Robards).

His particular skill was in finding the emotional core of the play here, surely Josie's love for Jim and her discovery of how best to express it and helping the actors build their characterisations and the play around it.

In practice that means that Dewhurst can make Josie's lewdness and quiet love part of the same person, and Robards can take us deep into Jim without distorting the play.

Watch it. You will not see a play this moving or acting this brilliant very often in your life.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of A Moon For The Misbegotten - US Television 1975 - 2022

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