‘Moon for the Misbegotten’

Farm Work

By Gretchen Giles

I USED TO BE a snotty, self-absorbed actress,” snorts Lennie Dean, “but now I don’t have time for that bunk.” Dean, a theater teacher who specializes in the internal energies of the Eric Morris technique of acting, doesn’t even really have time for this phone call. A busy mother of three, she is calling from the front office of her children’s school during a volunteer-day break.

“I feel so different because I’m a mother, and I feel that I’m giving in a different way,” she says of her first return to the stage in 10 years, starring as Josie in the First Stage Company’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s semi-autobiographical cycle play, Moon for the Misbegotten.

“Some actors are on the stage to get something from the audience,” she analyzes. “I’m excited and tenuous about my relationship with the audience, but I feel like I have something to share.”

And share she will, for Dean is onstage for almost every moment of this absorbing work, directed by Michael Fontaine. Written by O’Neill in 1943 as the natural progression to his (posthumously awarded) Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Long Day’s Journey into Night, Moon follows the unfortunate progression of one James Tyrone Jr. (played by Gary Wium).

Wobbling in his father’s footsteps, James is a failed actor with a drinking problem, the severity of which kept him too whacked to even attend his morphine-addled mother’s funeral. Returning to his family’s now-leased farm, a sort of scene of the grime where he endured the sad, abusive childhood so wincingly chronicled in Journey, James encounters his tenants Josie and her father, Phil.

Certain that James means to sell the farm, Phil persuades Josie to attempt a graceless seduction of the unwilling James, hoping to haul a shotgun and a veil out of the same trunk, thus marrying the farm as tight as a tourniquet.

The depth of this piece is primarily pooled around the stolid, unlovely Josie. Forget all the wink and nudge jokes about the farmer’s daughter. This girl works like a man, and resembles one through the waist. A particular challenge for Dean–who, after carrying her babies to healthy term, has lost some her willowy youth–has been to channel and realize the feelings evoked by inhabiting a role that reeks of self-disgust.

“It’s been hard for me,” she offers. “It’s been good, but it’s been hard personally. She deals with her beauty, [and] my image of myself in my head is very different from what I see when I look in the mirror. So I’ve worked with it very personally. There is just no way that I could do the play and not deal with those issues. I mean, I could, but it would have no water.”

Josie has wreaked her transformation on Dean in other ways as well. “All that I can ever do is to work with the piece,” she says quickly, as the din of schoolchildren returning from recess grows behind her. “In the play Josie distrusts all of the men, and in my life I’ve found that this has happened to a certain extent with me, too.”

Fortunately, Dean trusts Michael Fontaine, to whom she first proposed mounting this play. Thrilled with being able to direct an actress of Dean’s caliber in a role that seemed made in some dark heaven just for her, Fontaine eagerly scheduled it. As he often does, he is also building the set, an actual barn ringed on three sides by audience members and culled from the first-stand redwood of an old Petaluma chicken coop once listing on a property adjacent to the Cinnabar Theater.

Dean has to go back into the classroom. “It’s a very beautiful play,” she says quickly. “Very deep, and very dramatic. It’s a good role for me . . . [and] if I can have one moment on stage that is life, then I have accomplished my goal.”

Moon for the Misbegotten plays Fridays-Saturdays at 8 p.m., May 2-11, with special performances Thursday, May 9, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, May 5, at 3 p.m. Cinnabar Theater, 3333 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma. $8-$12. 763-8920.

From the May 2-8, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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