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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Desire Under the Elms
There's nothing dated in the themes of Eugene O'Neill's first major play, written in 1929 and set in 1850. The first American playwright to use the influence of Greek tragedies in his plays, this one, if consciously inspired by Euripedes, gets its beating heart from O'Neill's own family. His father, the famous actor James O'Neill who sacrificed a promising career to tour all his life in his most popular potboiler The Count of Monte Cristo, plays many parts in O'Neill's oeuvre, of which Ephraim Cabot is only the first in a full-length play. Others include Con Melody in A Touch of the Poet, and, of course, James Tyrone in Long Day's Journey Into The Night.
When Jeffrey Hayden discovered many African-Americans owned farms in New England during that period, he decided to cast the play with some of the stunning actors he had used in his acclaimed Actors Theatre production of Fences at the Odyssey, leading off with 2006 Ovation-winner Charlie Robinson as Ephraim. A terrifying presence as the hard self-absorbed father of three sons who call him, with reason, "the old devil" Robinson can wring your heart with his loneliness in his poignant question to his young wife Abby, "Will you ever know me?" When he says "God's hard, not easy," there's the impression he's modeling himself on God or modeling God on himself. The playwright betrays more sensitivity to Ephraim than he managed for his own father, the source material.
Robinson is matched by the passionate performance of Nadege August as Abby, the orphan, then widow, who worked all her life in "other folk's homes" until the 76-year-old Ephraim Cabot comes along and offers her a home of her own. On first entrance the girl, though dressed in a sober traveling suit, flaunts her sexuality like a prostitute. We get mixed signals about this character's background. She's thrilled to have a house to refer to as hers. When she learns it may not be hers unless she gives Ephraim a son, she determines to do so but, unbeknownst to Ephraim, it's his youngest son Eben (David Batiste) who fathers the baby.
The sadistic glee with which Ephraim tells Eben that he's willing the farm to Abby and her child seems to stem partly from his jealousy of the younger man and triggers Eben's passionate rejection of Abby's love and their child. It's here that O'Neill demonstrates his propensity for creating characters who harbor the seeds of their own destruction. Abby, to her own surprise, has fallen desperately in love with Eben. "It's the only joy I've ever known,", she says wonderingly. August finds the roots of Abby's passion for Eben. Her physical choices in her distraught scene are a matter of preference. Less might have been more.
The play builds to a tragic climax that, nonetheless, contains a satisfying resolution for all three characters. As written, Eben is a complex character. He has the cunning to steal his father's money and to bribe his half-brothers into signing their shares of the farm over to him. He also has a superstitious streak, sensing the presence of his mother's ghost whom he feels his father worked to death and vengefully mourns. Because her family contested Ephraim's ownership of the farm, Eben is convinced it is his. Though he obviously has the chops for the role, David Batiste doesn't always find the nuances. He fails to project Eben's emotional torment in the scene when he lies prone on the floor without moving a muscle while Abby's anguish sears the stage. He has an amused smile that speaks of kinship with his buffoonish half-brothers who lighten the first scene.
The actors struggle with the New England accent O'Neill has written into his play. What works best is "Ayah." Charles Erven's excellent set design includes a pump that pumps real water, emphasizing the grueling farm work the men do. Hayden directs with sensitivity, humor and power. It's been a while since this city has had such a good O'Neill revival and it was sorely needed.
For more about Eugene O'Neill and links to reviews of his plays, including aother productions of Desire Under the Elms, see CurtainUp's O'Neill Backgrounder.