Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Review - "A Moon for the Misbegotten"

“A Moon for the Misbegotten” currently playing at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre features a strong cast bringing to life Eugene O’Neill’s damaged, complicated, and often very funny characters in the most hearty, and heartbreaking, manner.

The shanty Irish Hogans, father and daughter, live hand to mouth on a hardscrabble farm on the edge of more polite Connecticut village life in 1923. They do more battle with each other than with their neighbors, contending in colorful Irish oaths and rollicking threats of violence over issues ranging from Phil Hogan’s scheming ways, his drinking, and equally devilish daughter Josie’s temper, and tales of her easy virtue.

James Tyrone, Jr., the dandy actor who playfully spars with Phil as his drinking buddy, and spars with Josie over personal secrets, shares a tortured night of confessions and castigations with Josie. We see, as they do, that love and healing take many forms.

Kate Udall is stunning as Josie, who though labeled throughout the play as a big, strong woman with spirit and an independent streak, becomes suddenly vulnerable when her true feelings, and her secret is revealed. Josie finds relief in sharing her secret and revealing her passion and gentleness, learning to find peace with that unique burden of strong people, which is not being allowed to be anything but strong. Udall is on stage for most of the play, and deftly carries the soul of the play as her feisty, and surprisingly romantic, character supports the needs of those around her.

Gordon Joseph Weiss terrifically captures the curmudgeonly rascal Phil Hogan, Josie’s incorrigible father whose tricks and questionable business dealings provide much of the play’s humor and balances the more unhappy aspects of the characters’ relationships. He is physical, and majestically boisterous. The rapport and timing between Weiss and Udall is something wonderful, trading quips and insults and threats interchangeably.

Michael Canavan’s fine understated performance as their friend, contrasts the more emotionally volatile manner of the other two, yet his demons are far worse. James Tyrone, the gentleman actor with the drinking problem has emotional and psychological burdens too great to bear until this night when Josie draws them out and bears them for him. Canavan successfully balances both despair and teasing humor, and pulls the audience in with his tragic honesty.

John Kooi is the wealthy neighbor T. Stedman Harder in a memorable rollicking scene where the hapless gentleman finds himself the victim of his social inferiors’ revenge. Karl Baker Olson is Josie’s young brother Mike, who bitterly leaves the family shack and establishes in the opening scenes the Hogan family history.

Directed by Edward Morgan, the play moves along at a quick pace, and is foremost a play more reliant on dialogue than on physical action. The grittiness is made suddenly lyrical at odd moments. One of these is when Tyrone stands outside the shack in the early evening, and sees through the dimly lit window that Josie is combing her hair. We see the shadow of this slow, sensual, dance-like action projected against the scrim in the background.

Bill Clarke is responsible for the scenic design, which makes use of the intimate stage with a very evocative “other side of the tracks” setting. There are bits of grass growing from the crumbling, iconic New England stone wall, and the rough, split and rotting boards of the shack and the ramshackle front porch on which much of the action takes place brings a stark and unforgiving texture to the scene. The realism of the set is a suggestion itself of what the Hogans’ lives are like, and by its contrast, enhances rather than negates the tenderness of Josie’s eventual understanding of Tyrone and his sense of guilt.

Jeni Schaefer, costume design, sets the period with the finer clothes of the finer gentlemen. She illustrates both the hand-to-mouth existence and recalcitrant manner of father and daughter in Phil Hogan’s loose, torn, overalls that seem to have a life of their own apart from his constantly writhing body, and in Josie’s diamond-in-the-rough persona in simple, unadorned, shift dresses.

“A Moon for the Misbegotten” was Eugene O’Neill’s last play. O’Neill changed the face and future of American theatre in the 1920s and 1930s with his literate plays which explored serious issues, taking American drama beyond the established 19th century style melodrama. He won four Pulitzer Prizes, and was the only American playwright ever to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

“A Moon for the Misbegotten” runs through May 17th at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 East Merrimack Street, Lowell. For more information on the production, have a look at this website.

The show was very well received by the audience at the performance I saw, with enthusiastic comments traded back and forth as we left the theater. Try to see this soulful, moving play in this first-rate production for yourself, and please let us know what you thought.

Note: All photographs accompanying this piece are by Meghan Moore.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Upcoming Plays

Here are some upcoming plays at professional New England theaters:

The Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut presents the new musical comedy “Lucky Guy” from May 14th through June 14th, set in the country music world of Nashville.

The Majestic Theatre in West Springfield, Mass. presents “John & Paul” a multi media show from April 16th through May 24th. This look at the partnership of John Lennon and Paul McCartney features original music and lyrics by Steven Schecter, with narration and dramatization by Danny Eaton.

The American Repertory Theatre gives us a David Mamet celebration in the “Sex, Satire, Romance, and Ducks” festival of works by Mamet. The individual plays are “Romance” which runs from May 9th through June 7th, at the Loeb Drama Center, “Seriously Funny” which runs May 29th through June 6th at the Zero Arrow Theatre, and “Sexual Perversity in Chicago” and “The Duck Variations” at the Zero Arrow Theatre from June 11th through June 28th. For more information, have a look here.

Hartford’s The Bushnell presents the lavish musical “The Phantom of the Opera” opening tonight and running through May 10th.

Connecticut’s Westport Country Playhouse will present “Children” a drama by A.R. Gurney from May 26th through June 13th. “When their mysterious brother, Pokey, returns to the family's beachside vacation home, all the family plans crumble as love affairs and family secrets explode.” For more information, have a look here.

Finally, at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre, Eugene O’Neill’s “A Moon for the Misbegotten” will be presented April 23rd through May 17th. “A beautiful American classic about two lost souls and their touching encounter under a full moon. Fatigued with life, Josie and James struggle with dual realities in this comic and tragic meeting. It is a stark look at humanity in its basest and loveliest form by four-time Pulitzer Prize and America’s only Nobel Prize-winning playwright.”

For more information, have a look here.

NOTE: This blog will review Merrimack’s production of “A Moon for the Misbegotten” next week.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The University Players of Cape Cod

A couple of months ago back in February of this year, Cape Cod, and New England summer theater, lost a bit of history when a house in Woods Hole, Mass. was destroyed in a fire. It was once a rehearsal space for the University Players.

The house, once part of the Whitecrest estate owned by Frances Crane, was used as rehearsal space in the mid 1920s, when Henry Fonda was part of that group.

Other members included future Hollywood actor Kent Smith, stage and screen star Margaret Sullavan, future Life photographer John Swope, and the future Broadway director Joshua Logan. The fledgling professional troupe was named “University Players” because these founding members were all then students at Harvard, Radcliffe, and Princeton.

Other members who in future years ended up on Broadway or in Hollywood were Myron McCormick, Barbara O’Neill, Bartlett Quigley (whose daughter, Jane Alexander accomplished much in films and on stage), character actress Mildred Natwick, Arlene Francis, and Martin Gabel. In the group’s final year, James Stewart joined them, and the gangly Midwesterner who had recently taken an interest in dramatics in college, learned how to be a leading man.

The young actresses were quartered, and chaperoned, in rented house in Quissett. The young actors slept on Charles Leatherbee's grandfather's yacht or on the Charles Crane estate in Woods Hole.

They later moved to an old movie theater near Old Silver Beach and most of the actors were later housed in West Falmouth.

The University Players lasted less then five years, disbanding in the depths of the Depression, though most of its members were more fortunate, going on to varying degrees of fame and fortune. According to Henry Fonda’s autobiography, “Fonda - My Life” (New American Library, NY, 1981), Fonda once remarked of his early exposure to theater in University Players, “The only people who’ve seen me are visitors to Cape Cod.”

In his autobiography, “My Up and Down, In and Out Life” (Delacorte, 1976), future Broadway director Joshua Logan wrote of these summers in West Falmouth, “…inside each member burned hot love not only for the theatre but for their company - yes, and for each other. We actually believed we were better than anyone. We would have challenged any company in the country. It was only this blind, idiot confidence that could make us accept minor parts, odd jobs with the crew, our meager salary of five dollars a week less laundry, our frayed clothing and our repetitious skimpy diet.”

If it was a cloistered existence, it was also ultimately a career-building experience.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Summer Stock and Hollywood Stars

As noted in an earlier post on my Another Old Movie Blog (see here), film stars from Hollywood’s heyday found their start and made their mark in New England summer theater. We’ll be covering more on summer theater, past and present, as the season gets underway.

Henry Fonda and James Stewart found acting work early in their careers in summer stock on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Both worked with the University Players in Falmouth. Fonda also worked with the Cape Playhouse down the road in Dennis, where a young Bette Davis was an usher, soon to get her own chance to perform onstage under Laura Hope Crews. Robert Montgomery, Constance Collier, Frances Farmer, and Lloyd Nolan all appeared here in their apprentice years. Other movie stars who performed here were Humphrey Bogart, Lana Turner, and Ginger Rogers.

Later on, Fonda, still scrounging for work on the New England summer theater circuit, would do odd jobs at the summer theater in Surrey, Maine, where he chauffeured and picked up guest actor Joseph Cotten’s trunk at the railroad depot.

Humphrey Bogart appeared a little further south in Maine at the Lakewood Theater in Skowhegan.

Jane Wyatt got her start with the Berkshire Playhouse in Stockbridge, Mass., where Mary Wickes also played.

Summer stock and road shows were not only for the novice actors. Ethel Barrymore, Basil Rathbone, Cornelia Otis Skinner, and Judith Anderson regularly trod the boards of rather humble New England playhouses, long after they had achieved their fame.

Sometimes called “the straw hat circuit”, summer stock reached its peak probably in the 1940s through the 1960s. Along with the above-mentioned playhouses, some others were the North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly, Mass, the Priscilla Beach Theatre in Plymouth, Mass., the South Shore Music Circus in Cohassett, and the Cape Cod Melody Tent in Hyannis. If you’ve seen shows at any of these theaters, please drop by and share your memories.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Hollis Street Theater - Boston

This ad in Byrne’s Dramatic Times is a bit cryptic about this unnamed new theater to be constructed in Boston, but evidently somebody was so confident that Harry E. Dixey in “Adonis” was going to be such a good show that people needed to mark their calendars even before the theater was completed.

“Adonis” was an operetta, one of Broadway’s most successful at the time, running 600 performances. Mr. Dixey, in the title role, was fittingly handsome and brought the popular play and his popular self on tour.

This ad likely referred to the old Hollis Street Theatre, which opened in November 1885. The ad mentions Isaac Rich was the manager, and he did own the Hollis Street Theater, which was managed by Charles J. Rich. The theater replaced an old Congregational church that had been built in 1811, and designed by Charles Bulfinch. That church had been the renowned American architect’s first building.

Today, the theater which replaced the church is also gone, replaced in turn by a parking garage. Each age has its own needs and its own priorities.

Some of the players who appeared here were actor and playwright Dion Boucicault, Augustin Daly, E. H. Sothern, the great Sarah Bernhardt, Ada Rehan, John Drew of the Barrymore-Drew theater family dynasty, Edwin Forrest, William Warren, Henry Irving, and Eva Le Gallienne. William Gillette, Sherlock Holmes to a generation, appeared in Sherlock Holmes in 1901. Maude Adams played Peter Pan, her signature role, here in 1906. Ellen Terry appeared with her company on April 15, 1907, in George Bernard Shaw’s play Captain Brassbound’s Conversion.

The final show, on June 8, 1935, featured the Abbey Theatre Players from Dublin. The theater was demolished August 21, 1935. It was the middle of the Great Depression, and 19th Century theatre took its last breath. "Theatre ghosts" are said to haunt old playhouses, but perhaps not parking garages.