A Moon for the Misbegotten
Those were the days of Abie's Irish Rose and the Hollywood little people. O'Neill has America in the person of a Connecticut Yankee get to the truth of it, and lay his head on the "beautiful breasts" of Ireland for a space. This is the sort of thing which earned O'Neill a reputation for great playwriting, but somewhere along the line the import of his plays seems to have been mislaid, and he himself regarded as a glowering lord of the dark tragedian. This is a great loss for the American theater, to say the least, but it will be remembered that when the Beeb came to record the Bard's Complete Works, four hundred years on, it still seemed advisable to them that the plays should be streamlined (be it ever so slightly), if only because three hundred fifty years of performance tradition are not brushed aside lightly.
So we have Jason Robards in this 1975 production spewing his guts out and eating his liver in a part which really ought to be played for O'Neill's interest, in a beautiful comedy that is closer to The Playboy of the Western World than a bloody rant. Robards gives signs early on of what he could do with it, just an odd expression full of hair-raising possibilities. And then he plunges into a suicidal bath of bathos, and there is no saving him. It takes courage to follow such a misreading to the gall of its end, and Robards has far more of it than even the British, who do their Lears better only by dint of aging in the hogshead. If you look closely you will see him toss in a tiny bit of Jack Lemmon at one point, and Charles Laughton at another.
The problem is simply that the play is obscured, literally, by such treatment. Colleen Dewhurst is directed to act in a gestural Broadway style, and there's no good reason for it, unless she is preparing the shock of the interpretation, but she is too good a comedienne to be kept down, and the jokes fairly fly off her fingers, given half a chance. Ed Flanders is saved for a brilliant performance in this brilliant play by a directorial concern for comedy relief, though even he must look dutifully dour, adventitiously.
Anyone fortunate enough to see James Earl Jones pick up an insignificant play by its roots and turn it into the thunderation and music and poetry that was Fences will have witnessed an ancient and venerable theatrical tradition carried on with every merit and glory it deserves. A great play is not to be fiddled with, however.
After all the noise, Robards speaks the best line in the play, "I don't like your damned moon, Josie. It's an ad for the past." And then, incredibly, he recalls Pinter on Anew McMaster in Othello by reciting, "It is the very error of the moon; She comes more near the earth than she was wont, And makes men mad."