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Desire Under the Elms
By Elyse Sommer
The past several seasons have seen a well-deserved resurgence of interest in the plays of Eugene O'Neill who won an unprecedented four Pulitzer Prizes as well as a Nobel (See link to other productions reviewed at CurtainUp). O'Neill's psychologically complex plays have proved themselves a challenge for actors and directors interested in new as well as traditional reinterpretations. The issues raised are timeless. The raw power of the spoken dialogue outweighs its tendency to be more ponderous than poetic.
With Richard Corley whose extraordinarily inventive Quills was the highlight of the entire summer '97 Berkshire season once again directing, I knew the BTF revival of Desire Under the Elms would be a production filled with risk-taking touches. And so it is.
Mr. Corley has stayed true to the Greek tragedy American style plot, time frame (1850) and location: A Connecticut farm is owned by Calvinistic hard-driving Ephraim Cabot (Jon De Vries) and coveted by Peter (Boris McGiver) and Simeon (Timothy Wheeler) the sons from his first marriage and Eben (Jeremy Davidson) the son from the second. A serio-comic opening establishes the virtual enslavement the brothers have endured in order to one day own the hardscrabble land which can't be farmed without first removing the stones buried in it.
The older brothers contemplate heading for "Californy-aye" and its promise of gold. Eben is locked into the home place which he believes rightfully belonged to his mother whom his father overworked to an early grave. No sooner does he persuade his buffoonish brothers to sign away their inheritance rights, than the seventy-six-year old patriarch arrives with a bride, Abbey, (Ashley Gardner) who's half his age. Hate sparked by competition for eventual ownership of the farm prompts Abbie to seduce Eben in order to have an heir she can pass off as Ephraim's. When greedy passion turns to love, Abbie is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to prove the trueness of her feelings to Eben. But the fates have ordained that all will not end well -- except in the sense of spiritual redemption.
And so with the play running a course familiar to anyone who has seen it elsewhere, what's new and risky here?
> For starters, Mr. Corley has completely deconstructed the Cabot farm from its naturalistic roots. The more realistic contours of kitchen sitting room and bedroom are now a raised, raked platform with a few chairs, some household implements and a few angled wooden boards to suggest walls. As designed by Christine Jones this abstraction not only evokes the farm's interior but its sense of dark, emotionally bereft and greed-driven lives.
> Where this set misfires is beyond those walls. Except for a few stones scattered along the farm's exterior, the nature metaphors that permeate O'Neill's script have gotten lost in the course of this deconstruction. The land that drives all the characters -- even the sheriff (Deron Bayer) who makes a brief but telling appearance -- is not so much deconstructed as de-natured and stagey. Those stones hardly evoke their symbolic and real importance -- as obstacles to be made useful, as the embodiment of Ephraim's hard God, and the imprisoning walls keeping this unhappy family toiling away their joyless lives .
Gone too are any signs of the elm trees which represent the spirit of the one soft Cabot, Eben's mother. Surely the talented Donald Holder could have figured out some way to incorporate them onto the variously lit scrim at the rear of the stage. (I am reminded of the very successful impressionistic setting that helped to make the revival of Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge such a success -- an impressionistic apartment with a very real Brooklyn Bridge projected at the rear).
The second major innovation in this production is the use of masks (by Laurie Churba) for the fiddler and the townspeople invited in the second part to celebrate the birth of the Cabot baby. With a realistic set, this almost surrealistic scene would be jarringly inappropriate. However, within the framework of this production, it is a risky device that pays dividends in conveying the two-faced nature of this gathering at which everyone knows that what has really happened in this house. These masked and mocking townspeople do much to raise the dramatic energy level.
The actors are with one exception well cast. As Eben, Jeremy Davidson demonstrates that he is as effective and affecting in a less showy role than his Marquis de Sade (in Quills). The apron he dons several times in the beginning nicely emphasizes the sense of Dr. Freud steering this character's every move. As he resents inheriting his mother's apron (and domestic duties), so bedding his father's wife is more an act of vengeance than true passion. Boris McGiver and Timothy Wheeler as the older brothers have their accents as comic Shakespearian hayseeds down pat.
> Whether it's the fault of Jon De Vries's interpretation of Ephraim, the director, or both, an objection Les Gutman raised about an Off-Broadway production of Elms holds true here as well: Ephraim's declarations that he's going to sleep in the barn so he can take lessons on life from the cows were delivered and received more as joke lines than the serious dialogue O'Neill intended.
The actor most out of place in this cast is Ashley Gardner as Abbie. Her premeditation and passion are as pale as her appearance. What's more, she more often than not appeared uncomfortable in her uneducated Yankee accent.
It's not the first time this play has suffered from casting flaws. Sophia Loren, while full of sexual sizzle, was not a particularly convincing Abbie in the 1958 movie version. Les Gutman, who found much merit in two O'Neill plays revived by the National Asian American Theatre Company, found the introduction of a race issue by way of a partially African-American cast an unnecessary extra bit of baggage in a revival of Elms. (See links). In the final analysis, his conclusion about that production applies to this one. Desire Under the Elms offers enough satisfactions to make any revival, perfect or imperfect, a welcome event.