Rock Solid Performances and Stone Hearts
By Lauren Yarger
The rocks forming walls and suspended by ropes that threaten to crush the life out of characters are literal and metaphors for the hearts of stone at which lust and greed chip away in a revamped Broadway revival of Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms.
Scenic designer Walt Spangler sets the rocky stage with a stark and dark images of the 1850 New England farm and house (itself also suspended over the characters at times) of the Cabots, a deeply dysfunctional clan headed toward disaster. The always excellent Brian Dennehy stars as patriarch Ephraim who brings his new, much younger bride, Abbie (Carla Gugino), to the homestead to meet his sons: simpleminded and disgusting Peter and Simeon (Boris McGiver and Daniel Stewart Sherman) who are the products of his first marriage, and the sensitive Eben (Pablo Schreiber) by his second wife who had claims to the farm.
The object of everyone’s affection, however, is the farm itself. Peter and Simeon feel their hard labor has earned them equal shares, but Eben believes the property is his because his father stole it from his mother, then drove her to her death. Abbie makes her own claims and intimates that she only married Ephraim to have a home of her own. The harsh and selfish Ephraim isn’t buying any of it. The farm is his, he tells them, and he promises to outlive them all so they’ll never inherit any of it.
Eben purchases any claims his brothers might make by giving them each $300 to go west where they hope to make a gold strike. Abbie solidifies her claims by telling Ephraim she wants to give him a son to inherit the place. Meanwhile, what begins as hatred becomes a growing attraction between Abbie and Eben. It smolders (lighting designer Philippi excels at making this appear literal) and in some nice staging from director Robert Falls which has Abbie and Eben mirroring moves and reaching out to each other from different scenes, the attraction ignites and when the fire can be extinguished no longer, the two become lovers.
It’s a rocky path indeed as Abbie becomes pregnant and presents the child to Ephraim as his heir. Eben objects and suspects that Abbie has used him as a means to get the farm. When Abbie makes a decision to prove her love for Eben, tragedy ensues.
All of the performances are strong, though the play, presented in a shortened version of O’Neill’s work staged at Chicago Goodman’s theater before coming to Broadway (it’s approximately 100 minutes, no intermission ), is less rock solid, however, as it offers some unrealistic plot and dialogue from time to time. It feels like a practice piece for some of the playwright’s later masterpieces. Original music from Richard Woodbury sets the mood (you can almost hear animals screaming in there) and a too-long recorded song is sung while a dialogue-free scene is acted out.
Desire Under the Elms is depressing, but this is to be expected when characters driven by lust, greed and selfishness develop hearts as heart as the stones surrounding them. The performances make it worthwhile.
Hurry if you want to see it. Desire Under the Elms closes Sunday at the St. James Theatre, 246 W.44th St., NYC. For tickets, click here.
Christians might also like to know:
• Mature Advisory
• Sexual Acts
• Sex outside of Marriage