Jane Alexander in Mourning Becomes Electra(Photo: T. Charles Erickson)
Jane Alexander in Mourning Becomes Electra
(Photo: T. Charles Erickson)
Imagine encountering Mourning Becomes Electra at its premiere in 1931. The Broadway of that time didn't get any deeper than Sidney Howard or Elmer Rice and, suddenly, here was Eugene O'Neill adapting the Oresteia of Aeschylus, grafting a Civil War setting onto a 2,500-year-old tragedy. Incest, adultery, murder, madness, vengeful bastard children, Oedipal complexes and several variations thereon -- a constant parade of passionate characters who lust after or loathe one another, with no middle ground. Of course, authentic Greek tragedies were staged on Broadway in those days, but audiences found them less immediate; after all, they were in verse and a couple of millennia old. O'Neill introduced modern language to the stories, slathered on Freudian psychology, and dealt with the (then) not-too-distant American past.

Instructively, the Pulitzer that year went to the Gershwin-Kaufman-Ryskind romp Of Thee I Sing; but Mourning was the work that truly unsettled theatergoers, confronted them with their own unexplored feelings about family and fate, and clued them into O'Neill's own unresolved furies about same. It must have packed quite a wallop -- and it still does, in the imperfect but potent production that has opened the season at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven. Directed by the theater's new artistic director, Gordon Edelstein, and with a cast headed by Jane Alexander as the seething, conniving Christine Mannon, the play enthusiastically taps into O'Neill's primal obsessions, stressing the characters' desires and animosities at the expense of plausibility and logic. These people do outrageous things and then, in the next scene, they interact calmly as if the latest homicide or suicide never happened. Disbelief must be suspended -- totally. But the reward is a powerful ride.

Greek tragedy was grounded in the will of the gods; O'Neill trashed that component and presented unhappy fate as man's own mess. Christine despises her war-hero husband Ezra (Kevin Tighe) and freely trysts with a charismatic sea captain from the illegitimate side of the Mannon family (Thomas Schall). He trysts right back but also makes a play for Christine's willful daughter, Lavinia (Mireille Enos), who jealously loves her father and tries to turn her weak-willed, returning-soldier brother Orin (Steven Sutcliffe) against their mother -- but Orin is as incestuously preoccupied with Christine as Lavinia is with Ezra. With its four murders in three acts, frank sex talk, compounding retributions, and variously guilt-wracked and disturbingly guileless killers, the play has enough juice for a full season of All My Children. And, of course, it raises larger cosmic questions.

At Long Wharf, the lengthy work is essentially played as a nonstop series of confrontations, with each character not quite tapping into all of his or her possible motivations while ranting at the others. Alexander finds vanity, self-centeredness, and tempestuousness in Christine, but shouldn't there be a dollop of charm as well? This is a woman who has managed to enthrall both the husband she despises and a lover many years her junior, but we don't see why. Though O'Neill has Christine announce several times that she loved Ezra at the beginning of their marriage, Alexander plays only her present-day disgust, and her merciless railing against her unlucky spouse lacks variation. (Tighe is suitably pitiable in response.) Also, Christine's wily manipulation of her son comes off as crisp and uninflected; we don't see what fascination she holds for him. Alexander does look and move just right (aided by Paul Tazewell's excellent costume design), and she has a stunning moment when told of her lover's fate: Howling like a wounded animal and crumpling like a piece of paper, she's a study in grief. But what are we to feel toward her? Contempt, or pity, or both?

Mireille Enos and Steven Sutcliffein Mourning Becomes Electra(Photo: T. Charles Erickson)
Mireille Enos and Steven Sutcliffe
in Mourning Becomes Electra
(Photo: T. Charles Erickson)
Though Alexander commands star billing, Lavinia is the real engine of this play. Mireille Enos, too, has been directed to accent the vileness of the character. She's stiff, she's rigid, she scowls and glares. When other characters rhapsodize about her, it's obvious that they see qualities we don't. There's also something disconcertingly modern about Enos' gait and line readings; she's proficient in projecting the businesslike attitude Lavinia would need to boss others around, but you'd expect the character to have more colors than that. It doesn't happen till the final few minutes, when she accepts her lonely fate, and Enos has been too steely throughout to generate much sympathy at that point.

Mourning Becomes Electra originally ran well over five hours; this production clocks in at about 3:40 minutes, and while it's seldom dull, it's no dog race. I do wonder what's missing; is the cut material as relentlessly spiteful as this? Edelstein has his actors shout a lot --or, in the case of Sutcliffe's conventional portrayal of Orin, whine. Given a large playing area with which to work (Andrew Jackness's set consists of a few sticks of furniture and gray flats, none of which suggests the cold grandeur of the Mannon mansion), the director physicalizes the blocking entertainingly. Actors flail at each other, chase each other across the stage, tussle and wrestle and generally keep the audience awake. Edelstein even brings on the ghosts to which the text keeps alluding: The specter of Ezra glares over Lavinia and Orin as they plot his revenge, and Christine's corpse looks silently on as a liberated Lavinia transforms herself into her hedonistic, dead mother. I don't see these apparitions in O'Neill's stage directions, but they work fine; after all, this is a ghost story, and they serve to remind us of the tortured familiarl memories that kept driving the author to the bottle and the typewriter.

After two acts of near-constant (and mainly compelling) ill will onstage, Act III plays rather like a horribly disfigured drawing-room comedy, with Lavinia and Orin trying to maintain social graces even as guilt is wracking them and their lives are rushing toward ruin. It falls to Liz McCarthy as Hazel Niles -- the only woman Orin loves who isn't a blood relative -- to inject the one real note of warmth. She's splendid: Hazel's goodness comes off as natural and unforced, and her character's level-headedness is a respite after so many hours of passion running unchecked. But it's passion that takes the upper hand in this breast-beating, creepy rendering of a little-performed classic. You exit Mourning Becomes Electra not with the tidy satisfaction of seeing a rogue's gallery of miscreants get its just desserts but in awe of the depths of human depravity. O'Neill, no doubt, would be pleased.