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A CurtainUp Review
Desire Under the Elms
Desire Under the Elms on Broadway
By Elyse Sommer
Larry Bommer's Review of the play during its Chicago run
When I come here fifty odd year ago--I was jest twenty an' the strongest an' hardest ye ever seen--ten times as strong an' fifty times as hard as Eben. Waal--this place was nothin' but fields o' stones. Folks laughed when I tuk it. They couldn't know what I knowed. When ye kin make corn sprout out o' stones, God's livin' in yew! They wa'n't strong enuf fur that! They reckoned God was easy. They laughed. They don't laugh no more. Some died hereabouts. Some went West an' died. They're all under ground--fur follerin' arter an easy God. God hain't easy.
—Ephraim trying to make himself understood to his young third wife, even though he feels neither she nor any "man 'r woman" will.
Desire Under the Elms
Carla Gugino and Brian Dennehy
(Photo: Liz Lauren)
Interest in Eugene O'Neill's plays has been in full bloom since Curtainup was born. With this resurgence came the inevitable urge by directors to find new ways of making O'Neill's plays more relevant for contemporary audiences. This is especially true for Desire Under the Elms, O'Neill's first full effort to marry an American drama with ancient Greek tragedy.

Robert Falls, currently considered a major O'Neill re-interpreter, is not the first director to opt for a less naturalistic setting and diddle with the party scene that celebrates the birth of the aging, Ephraim Cabot's new son. Richard Corley's 1998 revival of the play for Berkshire Theater Festival scuttled the "purty" landscape, including the Elms representing the spirit of young Eben Cabot's mother. He mounted the party scene with masks for the fiddler and invited townspeople, not only to escalate the dramatic energy, but to convey the two-faced nature of this celebration, with the mocking masked faces implying that they knew what was really going on inside the Cabot house.

Falls' production, which has moved —its cast and design intact— goes beyond an abstract staging of the Connecticut farm scene that O'Neill knew first-hand. What he's done is to completely turn the elm trees metaphor for the departed soft or female spirit of Eben Cabot's "maw" on its head. Gone are the Elm trees and except for a dead pig, there isn't a sign of the corn or cows that took the place of the cleared away rocks. Instead, this is an all-rock landscape, with the rocks the size of boulders. Thus the opening scene showing the older Cabot brothers at work evokes an image of prisoners on a chain gang in some remote, maximum security prison as well as O'Neill's The Hair Ape. The brothers grunting and groaning at their labors symbolizes the Cabot family's self-imprisonment in this loveless, joyless all-male homestead. The living area in which the men's stepbrother, heir to his dead mother's chores, is preparing their meal not only lacks the details that make a house a home, but has the house, like some of the rocks, actually suspended overhead on ropes. While the house is several times lowered to accommodate the dining table, the dead mother's parlor and a bath scene, it too is hard and ominously symbolic, as is the marital bed's positioning in the midst of the rocks.

This is certainly an ambitiously nervy, sexy and invigorating production. However, as it takes a while to acclimate one's ears to the heavy accents, the rocky landscape and that dangling house make the viewer too aware of the directorial conceit at work to get immediately caught up in the desperate mix of emotions at the heart of the play.

Fortunately, there are enough striking scenes, many without words, to overcome the fascinating if somewhat too stage-y setting: Eben's taking a bath as Abbie hangs out the wash and each seemingly aware of the other's nearby presence. . .the uncommunicative family locking hands across the dining table in silent pre-dinner prayer. . .Abbie and Eben's redemptive climb up the rocky farm road to meet the town sheriff. Best of all, the actors get us caught up in this tale of hate, passion, redemption and dogged survival and they do lead us to what Larry Bommer (Chicago production review) aptly describes as a thrilling end.

If you equate an actor's status by his entrance being met with applause, Brian Dennehy is this production's star. He is indeed excellent as Ephraim Cabot, the Calvinistic, hard-as-a-rock patriarch and hardly needs that plush white wig supplied by Charles G. Lapointe to emphasize his enduring virility. He's also enough of a seasoned pro to make Carla Gugino and Pablo Schreiber his equal partners and both make outstanding contributions to this 3-star ensemble.

Gugino, a stunning and sensuous brunette, more often than not seems to have wandered into O'Neill's hardscrabble farm from a 1940s Tennessee Williams play (even her dress seems more more mid-20th than 18th century -- but then Bob Dylan's "Not Dark Yet" which accompanies one scene is even more current). She is nevertheless a powerfully convincing Abbie — a woman determined to collect her due for marrying a man thirty years her senior and whose manipulative lust for her stepson turns into genuine love. Pablo Schreiber as Eben, also manages to capture the range of his character's emotional journey, from a son bent on avenging his mother's mistreatment, to a Freudian-tinged incestuous passion that transforms him as it does Abbie.

While Boris McGiver and Timothy Wheeler are basically a warm-up act, they have the older brothers' accents and animalistic personas down pat— from their oxen-like work scene to the hillbilly-Bardian clown grossness during dinner. For McGiver this is a reprise of sorts since he also played Peter Cabot in the Berkshire Theater production mentioned above.

Yes, there is nudity, with both Schreiber and Gugino baring their rears briefly. Happily, as the high concept staging is not the disaster it might be with a less talented director at the helm, so the nudity is not just there to shock contemporary audiences into a new appreciation of a dated play. Given the New Group's tedious 4-hour revival (with 2 intermissions) of another Greek tragedy inspired O'Neill play, Mourning Becomes Electra (review), you won't find me quibbling about cuts that include eliminating a bunch of secondary characters and stripping the party scene down to a single fiddler in order to bring Desire Under the Rocks —oops, I mean Desire Under the Elms— in at a brisk, intermissionless 140 minutes.

You can read the uncut script at Project Gutenberg. For more about O'Neill and links to other reviews of this and other plays by him reviewed at Curtainup, see our Eugene O'Neill Backgrounder.

New York Production Notes
Eugene O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms
St. James Theatre 246 W. 44th St
Directed by Robert Falls
Cast: Pablo Schreiber (Eben Cabot), Daniel Stewart Sherman (Simeon Cabot), Boris McGiver (Peter Cabot), Brian Dennehy (Ephraim Cabot) and Carla Gugino (Abbie Putnam).
Set Design: Walt Spangler
Costumes: Ana Kuzmanic
Lighting: Michael Philippi
Original Music & Sound: Richard Woodbury
Wig Design: Chargles G. LaPointe
Stage Manager: Robert Bennett
Running time: Approximately 140 minutes, without intermission
From 4/14/09; opening 4/27/09 Closing 7/05/09. --closed early 5/25/09
Tuesdays 7pm, Wednesdays- Saturdays 8pm, Wednesday and Saturdays 2pm, and Sundays at 3pm Reviewed by Elyse Sommer April 25th press performance
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Larry Bommer's Review at the Goodman Theater in Chicago

God's hard, not easy! —Ephraim Cabot
Desire Under The Elms, Eugene O'Neill's turgid 1924 potboiler, is set in a New England farm in 1850 where a neo-Biblical father and son fight it out for predominance, sexual and proprietary. In this appropriately outsized Goodman Theatre revival their sordid struggle leads to a thrilling end.

Seventy-six-year-old Ephraim Cabot is a miserly monster, hard as the stones he clears from land he means to hold till he's 100. The farm came from his dead second wife, mother of his youngest son Eben, who works it with his dim-witted halfbrothers. Eben, who resembles his gentle mother, hates Ephraim for choking the life from her. When his father brings home a third wife, a young widow named Abbie Putnam, his brothers refuse to work for the despised old man. Eben buys up their share of the inheritance and they take off for the California gold rush.

But Eben's schemings are countered by those of Abbie, a greedy girl who wants a son to inherit the farm but knows Ephraim isn't up to it. Abbie intends to use Eben for the purpose but after she's achieved her end falls in love with him and makes him love her. When Eben accuses her of using him, Abbie, now a crazed and shattered woman, makes a terrible sacrifice to prove her love; broken Eben returns it with his own great gesture.

O'Neill not only indulges the plot's melodramatic undertow, he insistently plays up its heavy Biblical overtones and Freudian underpinnings, especially Eben's oedipal desire to replace his father and possess a new mother/lover.Though O'Neill wastes little shading on these over-the-top characters, to director Bob Falls' credit this Desire earns its name, while barely avoiding the script's histrionic pitfalls. (These anguished creatures could easily resemble a cross between "Hee Haw" and "The Decameron.")

Downsized from nearly three hours and three acts to an intermissionless 100 minutes, Desire becomes a set of shock effects, both more elemental and more sensational than in past productions. The actions confirm the characters' stupidity as much as their obsessions. (As always, the brothers are Gomer Pyle at his most inbred.) Here you'll find no elms but lots of huge boulders and a house that literally dangles precariously above the Cabots.

An Old Testament patriarch who survived to see New England, Goodman mainstay Brian Dennehy conveys the vicious skinflint's parched devotion to his unforgiving Puritan god. Dennehy's dogged survivor is louder than life in a one-note role but, happily, we hate and fear him for all the right reasons. As ambitious and sensuous Abbie, Carla Gugino ekes out the girl's desperate ardor for Eben as much as her lust for the land. Pablo Schreiber, leanly muscular and sultry with pheromones, doesn't stop there; his festering Eben crackles with O'Neill's genuine dead-end despair, the kind of reckless rage that makes what follows feel as inevitable as it's ugly.

Desire under the Elms
Written by Eugene O'Neill
Directed by Robert Falls
Cast: Brian Dennehy, Carla Gugino, Boris McGiver, Daniel Stewart Sherman and Pablo Schreiber
Running time: 1 hour and 40 minutes with no intermission.
Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Phone: (312) 443-3800
From 1/17/09 to 3/01/09
Tickets: $25-$82
Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer January 25th
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