A Moon for the Misbegotten is a tense, character driven play that demands  great acting and this excellent production provides it:  Kim Martin-Cotton is as fine an actress as I’ve seen anywhere and she makes the role of the tough-on-the-outside farm girl, Josie Hogan, come alive.

The play, written in 1943, takes us back to a 1923 farmhouse.  Like O’Neill’s earlier play, Beyond the Horizon, currently Irish Repertory Theater, this, too, is about trying to hold on to the farm.  Josie and her father Phil Hogan, are tenant farmers, and their landlord, James Tyrone, Jr., is a local boy who made it in the big city as an actor, and whose self-weary, drunken lack of self-respect leads him to mock his own success.  Josie’s in love with Tyrone, but hides it behind a cynical, sluttish affect.  He claims, in an affected, stentorian way, to love her, but she doesn’t believe a word, comparing her big farm girl self to the dainty women she figures he knows in the city.

Word has it that a rich neighbor has put in a bid to buy the farm from Tyrone, putting the Hogans’ hearth, home and livelihood at risk.  Will Tyrone sell, betraying “his best friend” Phil, and Josie whom, with drunken bathos, he says he loves?  Phil, with his own tough exterior and a wily streak, comes up with a plan.  Thinking he knows what’s best for his daughter better than she does, he concocts for Tyrone and Josie to be together and alone on the farm for a long, moonlit night, throwing them into each other’s arms, for Josie’s happiness and to keep the farm.

Fueled by enough whiskey to make most men pass out, Tyrone pours out the sources in his youth for his haunted nature, and his sense that, actor that he is, he’s a man for effect, capable of faking tears at his mother’s funeral and empty within, having room only for the self-hatred. And after spilling all,Tyrone does end up in Josie’s arms, not in the way Phil intended but asleep across her lap, his head resting on her breasts (which he has much admired), in a late night Pieta.  Awaking at dawn, he feels, for the moment, refreshed and free, having forgotten, it seems, that he has spent the night confessing to Josie the secrets of his guilty soul, the reason he now feels liberated.

So now will Josie and Tyrone live together happily ever after?  Bottom line, he won’t sell the farm out from under the Hogans.

The Moon for the Misbegotten has a driving narrative, and the scenes between the strongly conceived characters are exciting.   I don’t think this play has the unforgettable, mythic stature of O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey Into Night, which the Director’s program notes link it to.  Tyrone’s bathetic confessional (which lasts a little long) has the character and content of a pat psychoanalytic catharsis, somewhat dating the play.  Still, throughout we are held by the playwright’s vibrant skill in creating compelling psychological interactions, and by the fine acting that puts them across.

Phil Hogan, played by Dan Daily, seems at first a stock character, a domineering, crude Irishman pushing his children around, but gradually, through this outstanding actor’s timing and subtlety, we come to glimpse the active mind, wit and depth of feeling lurking behind the “drunken Irishman” mask.   The complexity of this character — and the way it sneaks up on you — is one of the great strengths of the play — he does what you don’t expect.

Though not quite fitting the part, Andrew May is able in the demanding and intensely emotional role of James Tyrone, Jr.   Kern McFadden as the business-minded  farmer next door is a stolid foil for Phil Hogan’s rambunctious ridicule in a richly humorous scene that’s a highlight of the play.  Often the lead actor at the Pearl Theatre, Sean McNall is good in a brief turn as the last of the Hogan boys to run away from their over-controlling father.

And Kim Martin-Cotton’s performance as Josie is transcendent, of the kind that it’s hard to see anyone else in the part.  She has a rich speaking voice and very expressive use of her body.  As my companion said, “She’s as good as Meryl Streep.”  (There but for the grace of God … ! )

Moon for the Misbegotten plays at the Pearl Theatre in New York City’s Lincoln Center through  April 15, 2012.