KPBS AIRDATE: January 19, 2007
Two plays fueled by booze, where bourbon plays a deadly role. Neither the classic nor the new work is primarily about the anguish of alcoholism. But it takes a terrible toll in both.
Several of the dramas of theatrical titan Eugene O’Neill were frankly autobiographical; alcohol was a destructive force in the life of the playwright, and his ill-fated brother James, the tormented character in “A Moon for the Misbegotten.” In the recent play, “Yellowman,” liquor propels the dissolution of a relationship and the destruction of a family.
But Dael Orlandersmith’s 2002 Pulitzer Prize finalist is really about something even more insidious, what she calls ‘internal racism’ – the mutual bias against light and dark-skinned African Americans that was conceived in slavery and persists today. Her provocative one-act, “Yellowman,” is treated to a fierce and fiery production at Cygnet Theatre. Forcefully directed by Esther Emery, the piece features galvanic performances by Monique Gaffney, as dark-skinned Alma, and Mark Broadnax as light-skinned Eugene , childhood playmates who grow up colorblind in South Carolina . But when they fall in love, both families object. As time goes on, the young people are shocked to find that they’ve inherited the bigotry of their parents. The drama is occasionally frustrating in its structure, presentational monologues alternating with direct interactions. But the language is exhilarating, and the intensity is relentless, drawing us inexorably into the wonderful/awful realities of this heartbreaking affair. The play provides a shocking glimpse at a dirty little secret of our society, one that Orlandersmith asserts is present in every culture. That’s faint consolation, to the characters or the audience. But don’t let that keep you from facing the dark truth of this exquisite piece of theater.
Grim psychological drama takes on a mythic quality in O’Neill’s “Moon for the Misbegotten,” an elegy to the playwright’s dissipated older brother, a haunted, self-destructive man who drank and guilted himself to death. In the play, Jamie is a depleted actor, the rakish landlord to tenant farmer Phil Hogan, a conniving Irish rascal, who spars incessantly with his earthy, oversized, Madonna/whore daughter, Josie. The first two acts are all banter and bravado, with the comic diversions underscored in the North Coast Repertory Theatre production. But the connection between Josie and Jamie comes to a deep and dramatic head in the searing third act, where artifice is stripped away and salvation is sought. Under the direction of David Ellenstein, the trio of performances is compelling, but this feels like a profoundly personal drama; it never quite achieves the level of the tragic or transcendent. Hopefully, given its consummate cast, over the course of the run, the play will achieve its mythic potential.
In the meantime, theater lovers should relish the theatrical paradox: two dramas that are at once sobering and intoxicating.
©2007 Patté Productions Inc.