Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Desire Under The Elms"

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note: entire contents copyright 2005 by Milton Coykendall

Eugene O’Neil is Alive
and Very Well in New England

Reviews by Milton Coykendall

In the script of Desire Under the Elms, there are frequently as many stage directions as there is dialogue. O’Neil states the specific year the play takes place, 1850, and even stipulates that there is “no wind &everything is still”. Director Janos Szasz sets the play in a Beckett-like no mans land, with a rusty old truck in the background. O’Neil describes in literal detail the farm house, the road and the stone wall. In Szasz’s production, the characters do not inhabit the house; rather, the house hovers literally and metaphorically above the characters throughout the production. O’Neil describes the rough, rock filled terrain; in this production the hard life of the farmers is given reality by the actors moving real stones across a gravely surface and by Abby’s need to wear knee pads. While the playwright opens each scene of his play with the convention of describing exactly where the characters are in space and what they are doing, Director Szasz makes the transitions seamless by having the characters move through a netherworld of space but which leaves them almost always on stage. Ephraim brakes rocks while Abby and Eben argue, or Eben watches his father and stepmother have sex, illuminated by a lantern he walks about the darkness with. Mr. Szasz begins the play with a ritual of the brothers moving a pile of rocks to the beat of a drum. While it was unclear if this activity needed to go on quite as long as it did, this choice underscores the primal nature of the play’s emotional core: the Oedipal struggle.

As different as these two theatrical sensibilities may seem, O’Neil’s and Szasz, this is an artistic match made in heaven. By trimming away the excessive naturalistic details and highlighting the passions of the characters he and the cast capture the very heart of the play. He shows O’Neil’s true brilliance as a dramatist by eliminating his weaknesses. O’Neil used the model of the great Greek tragedies in this play (and in Mourning Becomes Electra) but was a man of his time and could not help his sometimes literal sensibility. By removing what is extraneous to the action, Mr. Szasz has done much the same as a good sculptor who chisels away a block of granite to find the shape hidden inside. Eben wasn’t the only one who sensed a presence in the room the night I saw the performance.

The director staged the actors to be extremely physical with each other, i.e. the brothers push and jump on each other. The is a trade off when you direct actors to use extreme physicality: the actors lose some smaller emotional moments because their energy is focused on the physical activity. That being said, this choice provides us with a very vivid, physical reality: the characters that live in this rough terrain are literally “hard”.

Though some emotional subtlety may be lost at times, the major discoveries the character’s make that link the events of the play together were clearly given careful attention in rehearsal and wonderfully realized by the performers, whether it was Eben’s gradual realization that Abby had killed their child or Ephraim’s dawning awareness that the baby was actually his grandson. These performers were truly hearing these revelations for the first time. A favorite scene:

Eben and Abby kneel across from each other and are bathing. Each has a bucket. By stripping away all other details but the actor’s bodies in space, with water and bucket and cloth, we experience the sensuality directly, our eyes only focused on these two bodies in space. A favorite moment within a favorite scene: Abby dips her head into the bucket and, hair drenched, throws her head back sending water through the air out towards the audience. I didn’t need to know if the wind was up.

The actress playing Abby, Amelia Campbell, had a very difficult task to convince the audience that she really would slay her newborn to recover Eben’s love. To play infanticide and make it believable is a monstrously difficult task. Ms. Campbell was Convincing because we witnessed Abby commit the act with the full awareness of what she was doing. Indeed, I was left thinking that this actress must have an experience akin to someone with PTSD, reliving the killing of her child every evening and making it new each time. One of her best moments was when needing to summon the will to kill her baby she lifts the stone over head and lets out a murderous cry, releasing the savage in her.

My last word? I hope Mr. Szasz and Mr. Woodruff will seriously consider a Long Days Journey into Night. Oh yes, and I urge you to go see this production.

Milton Coykendall

"Desire Under The Elms" (12 May - 14 June)
64 Brattle Street, CAMBRIDGE MA

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide