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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Eugene O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms
Has All The Power of a Greek Drama

Also see Richard's reviews of The Rivals and Morbidity & Mortality

Center REPertory Company is currently presenting Eugene O'Neill's story of greed, lust and murder, Desire Under the Elms. The two-act drama runs through April 22nd at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek. Lee Sankowich has assembled an outstanding cast of actors to perform one of America's greatest playwright's rarely produced works.

Eugene O'Neill thought of this drama one night in the early 1920s and wrote out the piece for the Provincetown Players. It was presented at the Greenwich Village Theatre in 1924 with Walter Huston playing Ephraim. The New York Times celebrated its "poetry and terrible beauty" and "dreams of love." However, The Morning Telegraph blasted the show for "its morbid plumbing of the depths to which human nature can sink." The play moved to Broadway in January 1925 where the New York City District Attorney labeled it obscene and threatened to halt the production. Friends of the playwright were able to convince the D.A. to let the show run, which it did for 208 performances.

Desire Under the Elms had a brief revival in 1952 at the ANTA Playhouse where it ran for 46 performances. The production featured Karl Malden as the god-fearing Ephraim. In 1958, Paramount did a film version with Sophia Loren, Anthony Perkins and Burl Ives playing the puritanical farmer. The play is rarely performed since it demands actors to be forceful and to use the speech of New England farmers in 1850. This production has successfully combined the two important elements, resulting in a powerful night at the theatre.

O'Neill sets his play in 1850 on a prosperous farm in New England. The drama centers around the Cabot family: patriarch Ephraim (Ed Sarafian); his two older sons from his first wife, Simeon (Mark Manske) and Peter (Mark LaRiviere); and youngest son Eben (Ryan Montgomery) from Ephraim's second wife. Both wives were worked to death by the stern father. All three sons live and work like slaves on the farm and they harbor strong resentment for the father and stay only since, hopefully, the old man will die and they will inherit the farm. The three actors look and act like real farmers and have the accents of the period down pat.

Simeon and Peter look like itinerant farmers one would see in Tobacco Road or Grapes of Wrath, and they think only of going to California to the gold fields to make their fortune. In pure O'Neill language they talk about the "fields o' gold! Fortunes layin' just atop o' the ground waitin' t' be picked." Eben, on the other hand, wants the whole prosperous farm to himself since he firmly believes that his deceased mother had inherited the land and stock. He even knows where Ephraim has horded his money.

Septuagenarian Ephraim has been away and he now returns with a new bride, Abbie (Jessa Brie Berkner), who is less than half his age. Eben bribes the two older stepbrothers with the father's hidden money and they are off to the gold fields. It now appears that there is a contest between Abbie and Eben as to who will inherit the farm. Abbie seduces Eben since the sexy woman needs a baby to ensure her success at inheriting the property. A baby is born, and it looks like Abbie has won the battle. Ephraim thinks he is the father and the son will get the whole works. However, love flowers between the two young persons and new complications arise with horrid and tragic consequences.

The land in the play is the central theme and it holds all of the elements of the play together. Ephraim says it best when he tells how the land was covered with stones and he had to remove all of the stones himself. He decided to make walls from these stones to enclose the land that belongs to him. These walls represent a sense of confinement and imprisonment for all of the characters. Ephraim is a hard man and he does not have one stick of emotion in his body. He even believes that God has staked out land in the heavens for him when he leaves the earth.

O'Neill's dialogue is poetic, and the accents are heavy. Young buck Eben describes a women he visits for sex in the village: "Her mouth's wa'm, her arm're wa'm, she smells like a wa'm plowed field, she's purty." Ed Sarafian (veteran Bay Area actor who has performed for every regional company) vigorously plays the 76-year-old Ephraim with religious fury. He powerfully plays the farmer as a brutal and callus god. Ryan Montgomery (Killer Joe) effectively plays Eben as a torn and beleaguered character. When Eben spews hate at his father, his anger is deep. Jessa Brie Berkner (Fanny in Marius and Eugenia Vincent in Brixton) gives a breathtaking performance as a young vibrant woman who is lustful for the young son.

Mark Manske and Mark LaRiviere as the older brothers are excellent in the opening scene. Their manner of speech as uneducated men is perfect. The rest of the cast, Peter Cieply, Sean Keehan, Linda Paplow and Jenna Stich, have small walk-on parts but they are effective as townspeople.

Eric Sinkkonen's scenic design of the farmhouse on two levels is naturally done with leaves and stones about the stage and Patrick Toebe's lighting effects are superb, especially when the sun is rising during the morning hours. Lee Sankowich brings out the personalities of the characters and his direction is smooth as scenes flow from one to the next.

Desire Under the Elms plays through April 22 at the Dean Lesher Regional Center, Civic Drive, Walnut Creek. Ca. Tickets can be obtained by calling 925-943-SHOW.

Center REPertory's next production is Neil Simon's Laughter on the 23rd Floor, opening on May 18 and running through June 17th.


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema



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