Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.

Desire Under the Elms

Also see Susan's review of This Is How It Goes

Susan Marie Rhea, Parker Dixon and Kevin Adams
Desire Under the Elms, Eugene O'Neill's 1924 tragedy of greed, lust, and incest, is not an easy play to stage, or for an audience to experience. American Century Theater in Arlington, VA, has done a solid if workmanlike job with the play, which remains a hypnotic, intense piece of work.

As with O'Neill's trilogy Mourning Becomes Electra, Desire Under the Elms approximates the inevitability of Greek tragedy in an American setting. The core of the drama is the conflict between Ephraim Cabot (Kevin Adams), an aging farmer in mid-1800s New England, and his sons —Simeon (John Geoffrion), Peter (Colin Smith), and specifically the youngest, Eben (Parker Dixon) —and the triangle that develops among Ephraim, his new wife Abbie (Susan Marie Rhea), and Eben over control of the farm.

O'Neill raises a lot of philosophical and psychological issues in this play, and the symbolism and rich language he uses mean that the audience has to concentrate. Ephraim considers himself a "hard man" who has earned God's favor, like an Old Testament patriarch, by turning a rocky field into a productive farm. He distrusts the "soft" influence of women, including the mothers of his sons —two women he married and wore into the ground with his demands —and despises the sons for not being as hard-headed and hard-hearted as he is.

Meanwhile, Eben has a grudge against his father, on behalf of his late mother, whose family may or may not have owned the land that Ephraim now dominates. Abbie clearly married Ephraim in hopes of inheriting his property after his death, but Ephraim lets her know that she will only inherit if she can bear him a son.

Director William Aitken maintains a steady pace as matters take their course, leading inexorably to a conclusion that still shocks as it did in the 1920s. The script has been trimmed and minor characters eliminated, which does remove one perspective included by O'Neill: how the family is seen by its neighbors.

Adams ably shows how Ephraim's underlying uneasiness with other people (they are duplicitous and insincere, unlike farm animals who do what God intended them to do) is a major part of the man's rigid philosophy of life. Dixon is appropriately youthful and a little starry-eyed, still coming to terms with his mother's death and the struggle with his father. Rhea looks a little too fresh-faced and youthful for a woman who has clearly had a rough life, but she grows into her character as the play progresses.

Aitken's scenic design takes some getting used to: rather than a literal depiction of the Cabot farmhouse, he fragments the floor plan, placing the two adjoining bedrooms on opposite sides of the stage. More evocative of place and period are the dulcimer and fiddle tunes in Ian Armstrong's sound design.

American Century Theatre
Desire Under the Elms
January 5th —February 3rd
By Eugene O'Neill
Ephraim Cabot: Kevin Adams
Abbie Putnam: Susan Marie Rhea
Eben Cabot: Parker Dixon
Simeon Cabot: John Geoffrion
Peter Cabot: Colin Smith
Directed by William Aitken
Gunston Theatre II, 2700 S. Lang St.
Arlington, VA 22206
Ticket Information: 703-553-8782 or

Photo: Jeffrey Bell

-- Susan Berlin

Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for D.C.

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