Wednesday, May 6, 2009

A bright Moon at Merrimack

Kate Udall and Michael Canavan light up A Moon for the Misbegotten.

It's becoming something like a drumbeat here at the Hub Review, I know, but I'll say it again: to see truly great theatre, you have to go to Lowell, and buy a ticket to the Merrimack Rep. Because no one else in New England is doing what this theatre is doing. Certainly not the Huntington or the ART! And, I have to admit, not our slick mid-sized success stories like SpeakEasy Stage, the Lyric and the New Rep, either (clever and worthy as many of their productions may be). Or the over-rated, under-achieving Trinity Rep down in Providence. There's really no one in their league in the region.

Not that I'm always in love with what I see at Merrimack; they've made their missteps and compromises, true, and next year's season looks like something of a retreat. But any theatre that can produce both Skylight and now A Moon for the Misbegotten in a single season (after last year's A Delicate Balance) deserves the undying allegiance of true theatre-goers everywhere. Would the ART or the Huntington even know how to aim this high anymore? I don't think so.

And what's the Merrimack's magic formula? Well, it goes something like this: select a challenging, classic text, and have some faith in it. Cast the best actors you can find. Direct them with respect, insight and care. Design an appropriate setting. And then sit back and watch as the audience is riveted by a confrontation with the terrible contradictions of the human condition.

That's basically it. I guess it's harder than it sounds, though. Or maybe director Edward Morgan - not to mention artistic director Charles Towers, who helmed the previous triumphs listed above - is simply a kind of dinosaur wandering through the theatrical landscape; no one ever seems to have explained to him that classic texts are dead, and must be goosed into life by the rules laid down by a few academics, schizophrenics and Marxists. Or maybe he just didn't listen - and thank God for that! For this Moon not only easily eclipses the ART's version of some twenty years ago (which featured Kate Nelligan); it also ranks among the best two or three productions of O'Neill I've ever seen.

And this despite a flaw at its very center: its James Tyrone, I'm afraid, is miscast. Michael Canavan (who's making his Merrimack debut) is a skilled and confident actor, it's true, but his salesman's good looks hint merely at unreliability rather than the weakness and shame that haunt almost all of O'Neill's heroes (a younger James Tyrone also figures in the O'Neill family portrait Long Day's Journey into Night). Canavan is surrounded and supported by two great performances, however - Kate Udall's, as Josie, the giant of a woman he turns to for solace, and Gordon Joseph Weiss's as her drunken, abusive da - and somehow in this company he finds his way. Indeed, through his own commitment to the core of the role Canavan waxes, rather than wanes, in emotional power as the play progresses. I still couldn't say that he outshines Udall, however, who, with her rough-hewn physical beauty - and precisely-rendered ambivalent moods - pretty much limns every corner of Josie's contradictory mix of vulnerability, longing, and crude bravado.

Udall and Gordon Joseph Weiss hatch a plot in A Moon for the Misbegotten.

This great actress knows, however, to let Josie's tragic stature creep up on us, and so she plays at first only the character's comedy - then again how could she not, given the performance of Weiss, which is perhaps the most perfect piece of acting craft I've seen all year? Weiss's "bad tempered old hornet" is a small comic masterpiece, so richly detailed physically and so exquisitely pitched emotionally that it literally had some people in the audience in tears of laughter. He's been Tony-nominated in the past, and if this performance were on a New York stage, he probably would be again. There's also some amusingly underplayed work from John Kooi (who likewise impressed in the Foothills Take Me Out) as the wealthy neighbor Josie and her da play some nasty tricks on, and a quick but effective cameo from IRNE winner Karl Baker Olson as the brother whom Josie helps escape from their hellish homestead. Altogether it's as fine an ensemble as you're likely to see in these parts for many a moon. Now how can we get some millionaire to sponsor a Merrimack tour to Cambridge or Boston? Because we could use some real culture out here in the sticks.

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