WILLIAMSTOWN — Before taking on the challenging role of Josie Hogan in Gordon Edelstein’s production of “A Moon for the Misbegotten,’’ Audra McDonald had never performed professionally in a Eugene O’Neill play.
Does it surprise you in the least to learn that McDonald delivers a masterful portrayal at Williamstown Theatre Festival, with a grasp of her character’s complicated essence that is so sure and subtle you could easily believe she has devoted her career to O’Neill’s dramas?
No, of course it doesn’t surprise you. We’ve come to expect excellence from McDonald, one of the most skilled performers of her generation, winner of a record six Tony Awards, including one last year for her portrayal of Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill’’ and another in 2012 for her shattering performance as Bess in a production of “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess’’ that premiered in Cambridge at the American Repertory Theater.
But we shouldn’t take her virtuosity for granted. An African-American actress playing a character written by the playwright as Irish-American (“The map of Ireland is stamped on her face,’’ is how O’Neill described Josie), McDonald brings a level of concentrated craft, interpretive nuance, and emotional intensity to “A Moon for the Misbegotten’’ that is transfixing to watch — and that helps conceal the shortcomings of a sometimes ungainly play.
From the start, McDonald is utterly convincing as the barefoot, ribald, hard-working daughter of a tenant farmer, whether Josie is boasting of her power over men or fixing a water pump or sweeping the slightly askew steps of the Connecticut farmhouse she shares with her wily father, Phil (a very good Glynn Turman), in September 1923. There are depths to tough-talking Josie that we, and she, discover as “A Moon for the Misbegotten’’ transitions from comic to tragic, and McDonald navigates those depths steadily and beautifully, without overplaying a single moment.
Very nearly matching her stride for stride is Will Swenson, McDonald’s husband, who excels in his portrayal of Jim Tyrone, the Hogans’ landlord. Modeled on O’Neill’s brother, he is the character called Jamie in O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,’’ now 11 years older. The formidable likes of Kevin Spacey and Gabriel Byrne have tackled Jim Tyrone onstage, but the role is most closely identified with Jason Robards, who played Tyrone in a 1973 Broadway revival of “A Moon for the Misbegotten’’ (opposite Colleen Dewhurst as Josie) and later in a TV movie version of the play.
Josie is in love with Jim, and he loves her too, in his fashion, but Tyrone is a haunted figure, steadily drinking himself toward the death that he sees as a final release from his overpowering remorse, self-disgust, and hopelessness.
The cause of that remorse — Tryone’s behavior before and after the passing of his beloved mother — isn’t likely to shock present-day audiences as much as it may have when “A Moon for the Misbegotten’’ premiered in 1947 or during its initial, short-lived Broadway run a decade later. So the impact of Tyrone’s climactic revelation to Josie is somewhat diminished. But Swenson makes us feel Tryone’s suffering and gives us glimpses of the harrowing emptiness within his elaborately theatrical, poetry-spouting persona.
Director Edelstein lets the racial dynamic of the Williamstown production — in which the Hogans (including Howard W. Overshown as Josie’s brother, Mike) are played by African-American rather than white actors, as has historically been the case — speak for itself.
Nonetheless, certain moments acquire an extra layer of resonance. The bantering egalitarianism of the relationship between Phil the tenant and Jim the landlord seems even more intriguing, given that the play is set in the 1920s. Josie’s bitter assertion that Jim, a habitué of Broadway night life, would not want “my mug beside his in all the newspapers — the New York papers too’’ registers as perhaps referring to more than Josie’s belief that she is ugly. More than the usual measure of social justice can be detected in the scene when Josie and Phil bamboozle their wealthy neighbor (played by Aaron Costa Ganis) and send him fleeing from their yard in humiliation, after which Turman’s Phil stands on a boulder and proclaims it “a great day for the poor and oppressed!’’
As Josie and Jim grapple with their conflicted emotions, McDonald and Swenson generate real chemistry.
Married couples don’t always click when they perform together — consider Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in “Eyes Wide Shut’’ — but McDonald and Swenson draw us in, elevating the stakes of the play’s questions about guilt, forgiveness, and what kind of human connection can be forged when one of the people involved is an irreparably damaged soul.
But some of the most memorable moments in Williamstown’s “A Moon for the Misbegotten’’ occur when McDonald is simply looking off into the distance, not saying a word. That’s when we realize that among this extraordinary performer’s many gifts is her ability to express more with silence than many actors could manage in a 10-minute monologue.
A MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN
Play by Eugene O’Neill
Directed by Gordon Edelstein
Presented by Williamstown Theatre Festival, at Main Stage, Williamstown. Through Aug. 23. Tickets $35-$65, 413-597-3400, www.wtfestival.org
Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin