Saturday, April 18, 2009

O'Neill's "Desire Under the Elms"

Robert Falls directs this early Eugene O'Neill's play (1924, whereas The Iceman Cometh was written in 1939 and Long Day's Journey into Night in 1941). A huge space, St. James Theatre is more usually used for musicals than for plays, but it is the right setting for an epic set. The fire curtain rises to reveal a stage dominated by rocks on rocks, and rocks are suspended mid-air too, by ropes. Also suspended in mid-air is the house over which the characters fight to own, and so hangs accordingly over their heads like a monstrous sword. 

The patriarch of the family Ephraim Cabot (played massively by Brian Dennehy) is a hard man who compels his three sons to work for him in the hope of inheriting the farm he raised from the rocks. Brutal in appearance and action, but too soft to stand against their father, the two oldest flee early in the play for California, hoping to strike easy gold. The third son Eben (Pablo Schreiber), of a different mother, remains behind, only to fall in love with his father's new wife. A tough young woman, Abbie Putnam (the stunning Carla Gugino) also gives in to her feelings for her stepson. The lovers thus prove their "softness" by risking their hopes of hard material gain for the sake of desire. 

Completely memorable is the monologue spoken by Ephraim as he recounts to his wife the hardship he underwent to build up the farm. Unseen by him, the lovers mime their desire for each other. This scene, as well as the rest of the play, works so well because all three actors are equally-matched in their passionate intensity. Some scene transitions show the relative inexperience of the playwright, I thought, and the speeches towards the end feel a little thin, in particular those revolving round the killing of the baby. Perhaps that thinness was meant to be filled with pregnant pauses, but words (and music) are more powerful than silence in this production. 

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