Dissolute, drunk and dying, Jim Tyrone (James Black) lies asleep with his head against the ample breasts of earthy Josie Hogan (Annalee Jefferies). She cradles the spent, passed-out man in her arms on the back steps of the hardscrabble Hogan farmhouse. Pinned in a shaft of moonlight, these troubled lovers have peeled away their pretenses and unburdened their haunted, kindred souls to each other during their midnight tryst. In a verbal act of love, the truth has pierced and revealed their very cores, and this catharsis has elicited both ineffable sadness and a calming, clear-eyed grace. The twin spirits, entwined on the steps, are silent. All is quiet as the dawn light filters over the Alley stage, rendered in its pastel glory by lighting wizard Jennifer Tipton. This still-life from the magnificent Moon for the Misbegotten is Eugene O'Neill's Piet, and the emotional effect is so simple and right, it is shattering. This iconic picture -- one of the great stage images -- is but one further instance of O'Neill's mastery of theatrical structure, form and mise en scne.
Seared by his despicable memories of being unable to grieve for his dead mother and his profligate, meaningless life, Jim has asked for and been granted forgiveness by the only woman he truly loves -- tough, swaggering earth-mother Josie. With her reputation as the town slut rendered fiction by her own moonlight confession, she mothers Jim in her arms, realizing that he has never had love to give anyone. Inside, he's already dead. By forgiving him, she frees him. And Jim's chaste love for Josie frees her to live without lies.
Moon was O'Neill's last completed play, finished in 1943 before his ongoing, debilitating illness stopped his ability to write. (Posthumously, in 1957, the play received its Broadway premiere.) It's a lyrical "comic-tragic" requiem for his real-life brother Jamie, a Broadway swell who drank and whored himself to death in 1923, the very year in which O'Neill set his play. In a way, it's also O'Neill's heartfelt benediction for his own major flaws as father, brother and husband -- a last will and testament.
Moon for the Misbegotten
Moon for the Misbegotten Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-228-8421.
Faust Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-228-OPERA.
Moon for the Misbegotten Through February 4. $19-$53.
Faust Through February 3. $20-$155.
The dialogue is scrubbed clean, then forged into simple, plain speak that frequently soars into magisterial flights of poetry. And there's plenty of humor, crude and redolent, especially in the sparring matches between strong-willed Josie and her cantankerous father Phil (a marvelous, mischievous Bill Raymond), rendered with a natural sincerity that sets O'Neill far above his contemporaries and later imitators.
Alley veteran James Black plays Jim with his patented intensity, and his near-drunk scenes when the "heebie-jeebies" torment him are very good indeed, as are the various 19th-century "actory" poses and postures he uses when in his cups -- Jim describes himself as a "third-rate ham." But there's a slight hollowness to his characterization that he can't shake, and his lurid midnight confession fails to completely rouse us.
For all the elegiac blarney over his mother-obsessed older brother, O'Neill throws the play to Josie, and Jefferies runs with the torch as if leading a celebration. Not the mammoth creature of O'Neill's description, Jefferies, with a mop of dull copper hair, has O'Neill's "map of Ireland stamped on her face." Tough, tender, sassy and strong, she's a fleet-footed sibyl. When her defenses have been stripped away in the cleansing moonlight, her resignation and acceptance of Jim's ultimate failings combine joy and heartbreak in grand theatrical effect. There's drama in Black, but there's poetry in Jefferies.
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When Charles Gounod decided to give Paris a show, he went full hog: military parades, a May Day celebration, celestial visions, a witches' sabbath, a pregnant unwed mother who goes mad and kills her child, a handsome suitor, a comic-opera man-hungry chaperone and Satan himself, a boulevardier with peaked cap and red feather. This is that old chestnut Faust, of course, Gounod's 1859 operatic adaptation of Goethe's mammoth drama about doddering alchemist Faust selling his soul to the devil for a chance at youth and love. Houston Grand Opera, in Francesca Zambello's intentionally old-fashioned staging, amply fills the Wortham with all Faust's soaring lyricism and grand opera passions intact (except for the "Walpurgis Night" bacchanal, which, at 25 minutes, has been excised).
International superstar bass Samuel Ramey, who for decades has owned the copyright to all satanic roles in the repertory (Boito's Mefistofele, Offenbach's Tales of Hoffman, Berlioz's Damnation of Faust), has no peer here. While his powerful voice isn't as nimble as it once was, he nonetheless dominates the stage with effortless panache, dramatic insight and joy of performing. This devil is a charmer. He materializes his own red stationery on which Faust signs away his soul.
Though cursed by a hideously unflattering dress for the "Garden Scene," Georgian soprano Tamar Iveri is blessed with a singularly beautiful, velvety voice and the dramatic instincts of Bernhardt. She breezed through Marguerite's famous "Jewel Song" with youthful exuberance, and later, when the opera turned somber after her seduction and abandonment by Faust, indelibly impressed as the mad murderess who is granted divine salvation in the radiant trio "Angels pure, angels radiant." Anyone with a voice like this goes straight to opera heaven.
Tenor William Burden is a most winsome young Faust. Celluloid handsome, he's a looker in tights, and his bright, clear tone easily navigated his signature aria, "Salut! Demeure," greeting Marguerite's house as the home of an angel. He just needs a bit more oomph in his characterization to avoid getting upstaged by the dry ice, the rambunctious children and that crafty old devil in the pantaloons.