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Chicago by John Olson

Desire Under the Elms
Goodman Theatre

Also see John's reviews of Xanadu and Beer

Desire Under the Elms
Carla Gugino and Pablo Schreiber
The fire curtain is down as we enter the Goodman's Albert Theater, perhaps to protect us from the Hell we're about to see when it rises. Revealed is a set that's not the pastoral farm we'd expect for a play set in New England circa 1850, but a barren, nearly lifeless world of rocks—not just the mountain of rocks on stage left but boulders suspended from the flies behind a watery-looking scrim. In a prologue not found in O'Neill's script, two men dragging boulders across the stage are sweating as if they're enduring the fires of Hell, though the cold colors of the stage lighting suggest a non-traditional vision of the underworld. The men—who we soon learn are the older sons of the owner of a rock-riddled farm—seem barely human, and their slaughter of a pig (and ripping out of its intestines) underscores the trajectory of death throughout the 100-minute play. Though Eugene O'Neill was known as the father of American realism, this Desire Under the Elms directed by Robert Falls lives in a surreal world created by set designer Walt Spangler. The frame of the wooden farmhouse even remains suspended above the action throughout most of the play.

Desire Under the Elms, the centerpiece of the O'Neill Festival being hosted by the Goodman over January and February, borrows from Greek tragedy in its story of a son's affair with his stepmother, and director Falls has staged it more in the manner of the Greek classics than 20th century realism. It's a perfectly defensible choice: The super-sized emotions of the characters and the improbability of the affair's resulting infanticide could be hard to believe in a more realistic interpretation. (There is one nod to realism, though, in the use of sometimes incomprehensible regional accents, especially in early scenes.)

Falls' Broadway-bound production has its impressive cast of Brian Dennehy, Pablo Schreiber and Carla Gugino deliver their performances in a broadly intense and emphatic style, though their acting is not without nuance. As the 75-year-old patriarch Ephraim Cabot, Dennehy is particularly successful in showing the man's comfort in taking a 35-year-old bride alongside the harshness and rigidity that are the dominant features of his character's personality. Ms. Gugino similarly balances bride Abbie's flirtatiousness and sensuality as well as her manipulative nature.

As the son Eben Cabot, Schreiber's performance is all angst, but with a power and energy that drives the action to its climax. Though O'Neill wrote Eben as something as something of a dreamer, it would seem that any less intensity in his portrayal might make his actions less probable. We need to believe in an Eben that is tortured enough to steal from his father in order to buy out his brothers so they will leave the farm, and devious enough to encourage Abbie's attention. In some stage business added by Falls, but which O'Neill would have likely approved if 1920s standards had allowed it, Eben strips naked and bathes within Abbie's eyesight. Later, Falls again ups the sensuality to current acceptable levels of explicitness by giving us and Abbie a well-muscled and shirtless Schreiber where O'Neill had described him as in his undershirt, in the moments that lead to their first sexual encounter.

Though the text tells us the farm produces crops and supports livestock, the only products we see from it (save for the single unfortunate pig of the prologue) seem to be the rocks. Like the Cabots, the rocks, though strong and enduring on one level, are cold and lifeless, not warm and nurturing. Similarly, the relationships and interactions between the Cabots are cold and calculating, not loving or giving as we might expect from a family. The Cabot's interactions all involve a quid pro quo. Ephraim's interest in his sons is only for their farm labor. He married his two previous wives, and now Abbie, to provide work and sex in exchange for his support. Eben stays on the farm in hopes of someday inheriting it and his attentions to Abbie seem motivated by his desire for sex and to control her as a rival for possession of the farm.

In the play's final moments, though, there is hope redemption as Eben performs the play's only act of generosity. Falls adds a bookending epilogue which shows Ephraim ending exactly where he began as young man, tending the miserably rocky farm by himself, even after 55 years that included three marriages producing three sons. It's a powerful and disturbing image, suggesting there is no life or love without selflessness in relationships. Eben is the only character to learn that, though he learns it too late.

This early work of O'Neill, by no means one of his most frequently produced plays, may be difficult for today's audiences to accept if performed in the realistic manner it was originally envisioned. Ironically, Falls may have made the piece more accessible to a 21st century audience by turning back to the conventions of the Greek classics that inspired the playwright.

Desire Under the Elms will be performed through March 1, 2009. Tickets may be purchased online at GoodmanTheatre.org, at the box office (170 N. Dearborn, Chicago) or by phone at 312-443-3800.


Photo: Liz Lauren

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-- John Olson



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