8/7/2022 DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS Actor’s Express
SING, GODS, OF PASSION AND LAND!
Apparently, stone walls crisscross New England “like lines in the palm of the hand of God.” A stern God.
A pair of such stone walls greet us as we enter the Actor’s Express space, configured as an alley between the walls, a corridor-prison holding stern furnishings, stern characters, stern fates. How can passion and desire find roots from which to grow, to blossom, in such barren soil?
We look across the space to see ourselves, other audience members, peeking around the Elm leaves hanging from the grid like decorations from Scrooge’s counting house.
We are here to witness a tale, an old tale of lust and passion and greed, of deceit and cruelty and infanticide, of a stern New England God’s judgment on the least deserving of His minions.
It is an old tale because the play we are seeing is Desire Under the Elms, written by Eugene O’Neill and first performed in 1924. It is loosely based on Greek legends first seen on stage in the 5th Century BC in Euripedes’ Hippolytus, with many subsequent versions by Seneca (Phaedra), as a story in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in Jean Racine’s 1677 Phèdre,
America’s Eugene O’Neill ultimately brought the Hippolytus and Phaedra saga to the stage, adding in elements of Oedipus and Medea, just as he would bring The Bacchae into The Great God Brown and The Oresteia into Mourning Becomes Electra. He also brought elements of Strindberg into the story, particularly the device of the mother worked to death by an unfeeling father.
So, then, let us appeal to the Gods of Theatre to pay homage to Desire Under the Elms, to the skill and achievement of its actors and designers and directors and journeyman functionaries, as they stage O’Neill’s tale of passion and fate for all of us to bear witness.
Under a cold New England light, we see Eben Cabot. He starts the play by waxing poetic on the glorious beauty of the farm, a farm he fully expects to one day possess, body, cattle, and soul. His older half-brothers, Peter and Simeon, dream of more golden lands in California, where the ground is littered with gold rather than rocks and constant toil.
Their aged father, Ephraim has been away, and now returns with a young wife, Abbie. A wife he assures his sons will one day own the farm, body-cattle-and-soul, house-and-field, leaving his sons to expect only a lifetime of servitude to their new step-mother. Unless he choses to burn it to the ground before he dies. Or unless Abbie bears him a son.
But now it is Ephraim’s farm and will remain so as long as he lives.
Pete and Sim are bought out by Eben using money hidden by Eben’s mother, “a weak and soft woman” who, frankly, was worked to death. And off they go to seek their fortunes as far from the farm as $600 will take them.
Abbie may be younger than Ephraim, but she is smart and ambitious, and yearns for the security a son with Ephraim will bring her. She quickly seduces Eben because, Ephraim’s age makes conceiving a son more than a little problematic.
But it is not long before Abbie and Eben are passionately in love, though Eben soon suspects Abbie’s motivation is more acquisitive than affectionate. And, because the story’s sources are the myths of the ancient Greeks, there is ultimately violence and anger and retribution and characters howling their pain to the unfeeling and unhearing heavens.
This production is filled with 21st century stagecraft and style, yet it remains emotionally and aesthetically rooted to its sources. Yes, it is an ethnically diverse cast which would not have passed muster pre-Hamilton, but here, it is indicative of Ephraim’s penchant for new wives whose only trait needs to be strength and the ability to tolerate him. “Alley” configured playing areas are a (relatively) recent paradigm, but here it only brings out the prison-like existence of the characters, even Ephraim. Seeing other audience faces “through the Elm Leaves” puts us in the position of those randy Greek Gods leering over the passions of the mere humans trapped between us, the rock and the hard place, the Scylla and the Charybdis.
The program credits an “Intimacy Director,” a job that did not exist pre-#MeToo, the lighting design boasts a plethora of multi-colored LED units. which did not exist pre-internet. The three acts have been reduced to a brisk two short acts, yet all the passions, all the story, all the O’Neill at least “feels” present. And I am not inclined to research what was cut to keep the total running time under two hours. Unheard of for an O’Neill play.
What is present is Tim McDonough as Ephraim, a lion of an actor not seen since 2010’s King Lear at Georgia Shakespeare. His voice is a well-articulated harp, rising in anger, falling in disappointment, equally fearsome as a growl, as a roar, as a purr. I would call this the performance of his career, if it were not for all his previous performances, particularly the aforementioned Lear and 2002’s Willy Loman and 2009’s Big Daddy. Mr. McDonough is a force of nature and is so suited to bringing Ephraim Cabot to life it’s hard to imagine any other actor daring to try.
Of course, his younger co-stars must, by necessity, pale in comparison, but thank the Gods they do not pale as much as expected. I really liked Precious West’s Abbie, who is able to balance so many ambivalences – greed for the farm, passion for Eben, mendacity for Ephraim. You can literally spot the moment she switches from calculation in her seduction of Eben to a true passion for him, a passion that leads her to her ultimate cruelty. And it is to her credit that she remains compelling even after we know what she has done, even while she lies to everyone, including herself.
As Sim and Pete, Jason Kirkpatrick and Brian Ashton Smith are working-class hulks, true sons of Ephraim, without a touch of modulation they should have gotten from a mother, if that mother hadn’t been worked to death. And, as Eben, Ryan Vo is a stark contrast, a mirror image of his “soft and weak” mother, a young volcano of emotion who believably spins from passionate hatred for his new step-mother to passionate desire for her.
I have to also give a nod to James Baskin, whose short appearance at the end includes a heartfelt delivery of a line that upends the subtext of the play’s title completely. Yes, this is a play about lust and desire between a young man and his stepmother, but it is also a play about lust and desire for land, the Cabot farm being a not-so obscure object of that desire. And, curiously enough, by the end of the play, we believe them when they talk about the profound beauty of the land.
Eugene O’Neill’s plays can be long and wordy, but they are filled with characters who quiver with life and failure, with honesty and passion, with histories unspoken and described at length. I have been lucky enough to see Broadway productions of three (A Moon for the Misbegotten with Jason Robards and Colleen Dewhurst in 1973, A Touch of the Poet also with Jason Robards in 1977, and Anna Christie with Liv Ullman and John Lithgow also in 1977), and they were invigorating, lengthy pieces I found difficult to get out of my memory.
Actor’s Express’ staging is every bit their equal, from Freddie Ashley’s tight direction to Kat Conley’s coldly stern set, to Joseph P. Monaghan III’s simple but effective lighting (e.g. one character in moonlight less than a yard away from another character indoors by firelight), to the sound design with its moody underscoring by Chris Lane and Kate Hoang, to the period and place evocative costumes by Dr. L. Nyrobi Moss, to the Intimacy and Fight direction by Kristin Storla -- every element gels to create a breathtakingly moving and compelling production.
Desire Under the Elms is a sketched-in-ice portrait of a supposed New England Garden of Eden, a place that engenders passion and greed and stone-willed judgments where even the supposed thaw of love is too weak to survive God’s heavy hand of retribution and sorrow. It will prove to be a highlight of this theatrical season!
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com #aeDESIRE)