KPBS AIRDATE: March 9, 1994 >
Real-life stories can be extremely dramatic. Sometimes, that can make for great theater; sometimes for great melodrama. This week on San Diego stages, you can see both.
First, the great one. “A Moon for the Misbegotten” is not usually considered to be one of Eugene O’Neill’s best plays, but it certainly ranks up there with “The Iceman Cometh” and “Long Day’s Journey into Night” as one of his most autobiographical. Widely regarded as America’s most important playwright, and the first to win international recognition, O’Neill garnered four Pulitzer Prizes, as well as the Nobel Prize for Literature.
“A Moon for the Misbegotten” is one of his grim and moving psychological dramas, and it’s getting an excellent airing at Octad-One Productions. Set in Connecticut in 1923, ten years after the action of “Long Day’s Journey,” “Moon” follows the downhill course of the dissipated, alcoholic James Tyrone, Jr., the dramatic personification of O’Neill’s older brother, who wound up in a strait jacket, and pretty much drank and guilted himself to death.
Punit Auerbacher plays Jim with just the right blend of superciliousness, cynical humor and dark despair. His solid, stolid counterpart is Martha Pfrommer as Josie, the local Irish farmgirl — tough, lusty and vibrant, part Earth Mother, part Madonna-whore. Under Martin Gerrish’s assured, excellently paced direction, they make these characters visceral and believable. It’s a production not to be missed.
Further west, in National City, we meet a character who is somewhat less understandable: Edith Stein, the focus of the play by the same name, now running at the Lamb’s Players Theatre. Written by the Guatemalen playwright Arthur Giron, the play flashes on real and imagined episodes in the life of the German feminist philosopher, a Jew who became a Carmelite nun and was ultimately gassed at Auschwitz and beatified by the Pope. Hop-scotching back and forth from 1919 through 1987, the play confronts the many controversies surrounding the life and death of Stein. The issues are presented, but not the answers. We never really learn why Stein converted to Catholicism, or how she could continue to consider herself a Jew. We are shown the politics of religion and power in the confrontations between the conflicted woman of God and the anti-Christ Nazi who tries to destroy her purity.
The scenes between the Nazi and the nun are powerful, as are those between young Edith and her unforgiving mother. Also gripping are the interactions between the Carmelite Prioress and the modern-day Jewish holocaust survivor, appalled and outraged that the nuns have established a convent in Stein’s name at the gates of Auschwitz. But the play bogs down in matters of faith, and slumps under the weight of its own sentimentality.
Nonetheless, everything onstage is as good as it could possibly be. Robert Smyth’s direction is highly focused and imaginative. His cast of ten is first-rate. Doug Reger makes a frighteningly oily Nazi, Sandra Ellis-Troy is confidently, uncharacteristically centered and controlled as the Prioress. But it is Deborah Gilmour-Smyth’s show. She is riveting, positively beatific, as Stein, and her taped musical compositions and performance are equally transcendent.
The opening moments, juxtaposing a magnificent women’s choral ‘Sanctus’ with a crescendo of goose-stepping Gestapo brilliantly set the tone of the piece and reverberate in your head throughout the telling of this most intriguing story. The play may be flawed, but the production is flawless.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1994 Patté Productions Inc.