Moon for the Misbegotten Coho Productions, 2257 NW Raleigh, 220-2646, Thurs-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm, $18-$20, through November 29
T he romantic potentials in Eugene O'Neill's Moon for the Misbegotten, Josie Hogan (Luisa Sermol) and James Tyrone (Tim True), dance around each other perpetually; always flirting, never culminating; professing overwhelming feelings of love and yearning one minute, brushing those emotions aside like gnats like next. The fits and fizzles and stops and starts they endure combine to form one of the most frustrating failed courtships in dramatic history.

Tyrone is an educated New Yorker living in a small town, and also the owner of Josie and her dad, Phil's (Douglas Mace) ramshackle farm. Bored and too smart for his own good, Tyrone whiles away the days drinking whiskey and hanging out with Phil and Josie on their sagging porch. His life seems devoid of joy, the proposed reason being his unfulfilled love for the rugged, voluptuous Josie.

True plays his edified lush with affected restraint. His movements are stiff and cautious, as if requiring tremendous deliberation. His words are tentative; he wants to believe what he's saying, but he's not sure if he can. He repeatedly professes his love for Josie, and never once does it ring completely true, even after the booze has worn off.

Sermol's counter to this relentless detachment is a fierce focus; a scrutinizing of every word True says in desperate search of a sentiment from him she can lean on. She tries to keep pace with games of her own, feigned indifference. But her tricks feel as stiff as his attempts to be sincere, and in the end a real love for him bleeds through. It's a deeply layered portrayal of a tough, rural woman who's made a life out of hiding her vulnerabilities.

O'Neill's plot about Tyrone selling the farm feels tacked on, as does the prolonged presence of Phil (despite the fact that the ruddy, spry Mace seems to have been born to play the part). This play lives and dies with the agonizing interactions between Josie and Tyrone. Fortunately, Sermol and True are two great actors at the height of their powers, playing people who, for all their manipulations and misdirections, are forever cursed by inaction; powerless. JUSTIN WESCOAT SANDERS