Mourning Becomes Electra
at ACT Theatre
One cannot approach attending a production of Eugene O'Neill's epic American tragedy Mourning Becomes Electra without a bit of trepidation. When it premiered on Broadway in the early thirties, to fairly wide-ranging critical acclaim, it was over six hours long and, even pared down to three hours plus two intermissions, Mourning is still one of the longest day's journeys into the night of the soul in all of American theatre history.
Happily, ACT's departing artistic director Gordon Edelstein has created a beautiful Mourning. Edelstein's editing work is impeccable and his pacing is brisk. The cast, headed by stage and film legend Jane Alexander, sinks its teeth into O'Neill's melodramatic account of the Mannons, a family so tortured and tempestuous that Hellman's Hubbards in The Little Foxes seem like The Waltons in contrast.
Based on the Greek tragedy The Oresteia, the play is set 1865 New England where the Mannon family should be celebrating the return of father Ezra and son Orin, but instead is enveloped in one tragedy after another. Ezra's wife Christine has been seeing sea captain Brant, whom daughter Lavinia fancies for herself, and who turns out to be a not so distant relation of the Mannons. By act one's end the news of his wife's infidelity, and a little bit of poison in place of medicine, has knocked off old Ezra, sharpening Lavinia's talons for revenge against her roaming mother and the captain. In act two, Orin returns home for his father's funeral and is caught between two versions of how the old man died: his mother's version and and that of his sister. Suffice to say, he ends up believing his sister, seeking vengeance on the captain, and driving his mother to suicide. Act three depicts the children's vain attempts to find salvation with a kind, if rather dim, brother and sister they've known since their youth. All of this occurs under the watchful eye of a faithful family servant who can do nothing to delay the fall of the house of Mannon.
If the plotting and some of O'Neill's dialogue now seem as creakily soap operatic as a rerun of Dallas, Edelstein's cast compensates handsomely. Jane Alexander (as fine a stage and screen actress as any who have succeeded in both mediums) gives a virtual master class in great acting in her showy role as the Mannon matriarch and even infuses some wicked humor at just the right moments.
Mireille Enos has the more difficult role of Lavinia, who has comparatively little dialogue in the early going, as she torments and accuses her mother with icy silences. If Enos seems a bit too young and contemporary at the outset she compensates with a stellar third act, in which Lavinia mimics many of her mother's mannerisms and her elegant style of dress. Steven Sutcliffe is striking as Lavinia's shell-shocked soldier brother Orin, who finds a worse battlefield at home than any he encountered in the military. Liz McCarthy is notable as Hazel Niles, playing Orin's would be amour as a sort of northern version of Gone With The Wind's Melanie, whose sweetness and gentility mask a rather steely spine, and Jason Cottle does well with the less strongly developed role of her brother. Clayton Corzatte is effortlessly captivating as the family gardener Seth, whose eerie renditions of the folk song "Shenandoah" pervade the action, while Michael MacRae as Ezra Mannon, and Thomas Schall as Capt. Adam Brant score with less stage time.
The production's design elements are equally impressive, starting with Andrew Jackness' clever interlocking wall and doorway units which start as an expansive jigsaw puzzle of a mansion and end with a tight little box in which Lavinia plans to entomb herself. Jennifer Tipton's lighting design is tastefully understated, Paul Tazewell's costumes are handsome and detailed period recreations and John Gromada's original music and sound design suitably underscore the drama.
Talkin' Broadway's east coast readers may sample this production for themselves, as Edelstein, who is taking the reins at New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre very shortly, will be remounting it there, with Alexander's stunning performance as its centerpiece.
Mourning Becomes Electra runs at ACT through May 19. 2002. For more information visit their web-site at www.acttheatre.org.