So many feelings in each awkward kiss; such endless shades of response in a quick clasping of hands.

Every time Cherry Jones and Gabriel Byrne make physical contact in the heart-stopping new production of ”A Moon for the Misbegotten,” the floodgates open to a tide of clashing emotions.

Exaltation and disgust, hunger and resignation and, most acutely, a sorrow that is all the more profound for the faint sparks of hope it lets shine through: you see flickers of all these elements from the moment Ms. Jones, the Tony-winning star of ”The Heiress,” and Mr. Byrne, the accomplished Irish film actor, first brush against each other in the revival of Eugene O’Neill’s great, elegiac love story that opened last night at the Walter Kerr Theater.

The characters they portray — Josie Hogan, a Junoesque farm woman, and James Tyrone, a self-consuming alcoholic actor — are, on one level, as opposite as the quick and the dead, as the flesh and the spirit. Ms. Jones is the image of earthy robustness, with her wide-legged stance and wrestler’s arms; Mr. Byrne has the wan, mechanical air of a man who has already abdicated his spot among the living. But it is clear here that Josie and James are each wearing a mask that only the other can remove.

What makes this ”Moon,” which has been lovingly directed by Daniel Sullivan, so illuminating is the extraordinary transparency of its stars: their ability to play, and display, all those layers at once. To watch Ms. Jones, Mr. Byrne and Roy Dotrice, who completes the triangle of principal performers, react to one another is to realize the degree to which O’Neill’s last completed play is about how everyone is an actor, a deceiver by necessity.

Accusations, delivered both playfully and angrily, of lying and of bluffing are leveled throughout this account of one of the strangest and most transfixing courtships in American theater. The practical ruses and schemes perpetrated by Josie and her hard-drinking, conniving father (Mr. Dotrice) are reflections of deeper forms of illusion.

As in his other, better-known play featuring James, ”Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” O’Neill considers the routines of speech and attitude, often as fixed as vaudeville acts, with which family members and friends deal with one another. In ”Moon,” however, he allows his characters glimpses into the truth of themselves that heal instead of sear.

Its great, fabled moment of redemption for James, a part modeled closely on O’Neill’s brother (also named James), comes from having confession lead to absolution. This may be natural cause and effect in the Roman Catholic Church, into which O’Neill was born; it is usually not the case in the harsh universe of his plays.

Written in 1943, ”A Moon for the Misbegotten” has a fitting history for a play about redemption. O’Neill described it in later years as ”a poor thing,” which ”I have come to loathe.” When it was first seen on Broadway, in a 1957 production starring Wendy Hiller and Franchot Tone, it was greeted with head-shaking sadness. ”It is not so much an ascent into tragedy as a descent into squalor,” wrote Brooks Atkinson in The New York Times.

Yet 16 years later Walter Kerr, writing in the same paper, said the play ”just may be O’Neill’s richest work for the theater.” This assessment was inspired by a new production, with Colleen Dewhurst and Jason Robards directed by Jose Quintero, that was regarded as definitive.

When a third Broadway incarnation arrived in 1984, directed by David Levaux, the critical response, especially to Kate Nelligan’s Josie, suggested that there was still room for theatrical variations on ”Moon.” Masterpieces, it seems, never stop growing, and the current production emanates both a springtime freshness and an autumnal mellowness.

Mr. Sullivan and his company have infused the play with a mixture of cleareyed observation and a warm, luminous empathy that melts the performance’s solid three hours into a quick-coursing stream. This achievement is the more remarkable when you consider that the script’s components, examined individually, seem as dense and blunt as the rocks that dominate the landscape of the untillable Connecticut farm on which the play takes place.

Those rocks are very much in evidence in Eugene Lee’s set, which suggests a rural scene by Thomas Hart Benton. There before you is the requisite ramshackle farmhouse and the rusty old pump and the laundry of overalls on the line. Theatergoers new to ”Moon” might anticipate a New England answer to ”Tobacco Road.”

In some ways, they wouldn’t be wrong. Josie and her professionally Irish father, Phil, spend much of the play’s first half-hour indulging in a gruff, showy banter that doesn’t quite disguise the overly extensive exposition about their friend and landlord, James, and their relationship with him.

Mr. Dotrice’s Phil initially comes across as a Gaelic Pappy Yokum, cute and crafty and full of blarney. The first act’s comic centerpiece has Josie and Phil, assuming the roles of threatening Irish barbarians, humiliating an arrogant, rich neighbor (Tuck Milligan). They’re putting on a show, of course, for themselves and for their appreciative audience of one, James, who has by that point arrived and hidden inside the house.

What this production makes especially clear is that they have been putting on a show all the time. So has James, whose talk with Phil and Josie takes the form of barbs and banter that you know is the product of long association. Yet as soon as Mr. Byrne enters, you can sense that James, obviously near the end of a fraying tether, has grown impatient with this particular currency of friendship. ”Cut out the kidding, Josie,” he says wearily. Getting past the kidding, it turns out, is what gives this production its momentum.

Each of the three principal players dextrously suggests a slightly exaggerated, slightly bogus persona on first appearance, while allowing a sense of a more fragile, serious self to peek through. Mr. Dotrice is all feisty charm and drunken palaver, yet his eyes are shrewd and, fleetingly, a bit frightened.

Ms. Jones’s Josie, the self-proclaimed strumpet of the countryside, has the air of a roguish Rabelaisian giant, tough-tongued and intimidatingly large of gesture. (Just watch her rip the laundry off the clothes line or unlace a pair of boots.) But there is evidence of an uncertain girlishness behind the bravado.

Mr. Byrne’s James has the wry papery voice and stylized mannerisms of the wastrel actor who has spent too many nights on Broadway and the Bowery of the early 1920’s. Then there are those truly shocking moments when his face goes as blank as a cadaver’s, and you realize that those fancy finger waves with which he punctuates the lighting of a cigarette are used to camouflage delirium tremens.

The unmasking of these characters in the play’s second and third acts is both inevitable and startling. Watch for Mr. Dotrice’s abrupt, magical conversion from delirious drunkenness into all-too-conscious sobriety. And the seduction gone wrong between Josie and James that is the play’s dramatic center is magnificently executed by Ms. Jones and Mr. Byrne.

They grope through a maze of poses and stratagems to define their feelings for each other, a process that offers some memory-branding moments. Watch what happens every time this pair tries to kiss or embrace, rendered as a sharply limned series of conflicting impulses. Pay attention to Josie’s hapless, yet stirringly sexual attempt to play the vamp, hiking her skirt above her knees. And notice how James registers the abrupt arrival of poisonous memories with the startled pain of someone stabbed from behind.

Each is finally brought to a painfully wrought climax of self-revelation. Ms. Jones delivers hers with a sad yet enchanting air of violated modesty, and then generously turns the stage over to Mr. Byrne for the astonishing confession of shame he offers up while cradled in Ms. Jones’s arms.

Criticism of previous productions of ”Moon” has often centered on Josie’s dominance in a play that was written by O’Neill as a benediction for the dead brother on whom James is based. This is definitely not a problem here. Mr. Byrne’s long third-act monologue, its shifts in mood exquisitely set off by Pat Collins’s lighting, is a harrowing act of self-administered surgery, etched in escalating degrees of pain. It is, in a word, brilliant, itself the stuff of theatrical legend.

Ms. Jones is quiet for most of that speech, which is not to say that she disappears. She becomes instead an almost elemental presence, embodying the radiant spirit of acceptance and forgiveness that makes ”Moon” unlike anything else O’Neill wrote.

She also somehow remains affectingly, achingly human in her transfiguration. And we leave the theater wishing not only that we could have such a confessor as Ms. Jones’s Josie, but also that we might have the power to offer such comfort to another. O’Neill assumed both roles in writing this play. This splendid production makes sure that, vicariously, we do, too.

http://www.nytimes.com/2000/03/20/theater/theater-review-a-love-story-to-stop-the-heart.html