Eugene O'Neill's last full-length play, "A Moon for the Misbegotten," has always suffered somewhat from "The Godfather III" syndrome, eclipsed by the other two late-career masterpieces that rescued O'Neill's fading reputation and cemented his place among the greatest American playwrights.
"Moon" may lack the epic scope of "The Iceman Cometh" or the unsparing autobiographical deconstruction of "Long Day's Journey Into Night," but its more intimately focused bittersweet romantic heart still captivates. Rubicon Theatre's impassioned revival shows the mature O'Neill at the height of his powers — his arty experimental theater days behind him, masterfully employing classical fundamentals to wring hauntingly poetic truths about love and self-delusion from gritty everyday experience.
A sequel of sorts to "Long Day's Journey," "Moon" revisits the character based on O'Neill's older brother, Jamie, who died of alcohol poisoning at age 45. Set in 1923, (the year of Jamie's death), the play finds dissolute Broadway actor James Tyrone (Joseph Fuqua) back in Connecticut awaiting the probate disposition of his recently deceased parents' estate. Ping-ponging between self-indulgence and self-loathing, Fuqua's fragile James is circling the drain of despair.
Less directly autobiographical but nevertheless steeped in O'Neill's Irish American immigrant heritage are the Hogans, a family of dirt-poor tenant farmers residing on the Tyrones' property (a ramshackle house brilliantly shoehorned onto the stage by designer Thomas S. Giamario).
The unscrupulous Hogan patriarch (a gleefully uninhibited Granville Van Dusen) is James' longtime drinking buddy, but fearing James may unload the inherited farm he enlists his daughter Josie (feisty Rebekah Tripp), the notorious town trollop, in a scheme to prevent the sale.
O'Neill isn't famous for laughs, but this fine cast overcomes the play's tonal challenges in their superbly executed comic banter in the play's early going. They also preserve O'Neill's deeper paradoxical insight: though these characters' relationships are based on deception, lying is their purest form of truth-telling when it comes to the things that matter most.
Director Jenny Sullivan's impeccable staging may not find new revelations from the text, but she mines its full measure of heartbreaking tenderness, especially from the pivotal third-act moonlighted tryst in which misbegotten Josie and James bare the wounded souls beneath their jaded psychic armor.
This comforting respite is a departure from O'Neill's more famous marathon tragedies — "Moon" may not cover as much ground but it's a shorter night's journey into daybreak, however partial and fleeting.
"A Moon for the Misbegotten," Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura. 2 and 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends April 6. $39-$49. (805) 667-2900 or www.rubicontheatre.org. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes