Theater News

Carla Gugino Fulfills Her Heart’s Desire

The fearless actress tackles Eugene O’Neill in the Goodman Theatre’s production of Desire Under the Elms.

Carla Gugino and Pablo Schreiber in rehearsal for Desire Under the Elms
(© Eric Y. Exit)
Carla Gugino and Pablo Schreiber
in rehearsal for Desire Under the Elms
(© Eric Y. Exit)

Carla Gugino can make a very nice living as a movie star — as evidenced by her upcoming slate of films, which include the romantic drama Every Day (in which she tries to steal Liev Schreiber from Helen Hunt), the big-budget Disney film Escape to Witch Mountain, and, most of all, the long-awaited adaptation of the graphic novel Watchmen, in which she plays Sally Spectre. But four years ago, the now 37-year-old actress made a commitment to return to the stage by taking on the role of Maggie in the Roundabout’s revival of Arthur Miller’s After the Fall and followed it up two years later by tackling the equally difficult role of Catharine, again for the Roundabout, in Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer.

Now, Gugino is playing Abbie, the hardscrabble woman who gets involved with father and son (played by Brian Dennehy and Pablo Schreiber), in the Goodman Theatre’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s 1925 melodrama Desire Under the Elms as part of the theater’s two-month-long O’Neill Festival. It’s a heady assignment, to say the least. “Of course, it’s absolutely terrifying to play all of these women, and follow in the footsteps of the actresses who’ve played them before [including Faye Dunaway, Elizabeth Taylor, and Sophia Loren], but each time I was approached, I thought if I can crack this nut, it’s going to be amazing,” she says. “And I’m the type of person who if a role doesn’t scare me, then it’s not worth doing.”

While it’s somewhat coincidental that Gugino has chosen works by these great masters of American playwriting, the actress has found they have a common denominator. “These three playwrights are so different stylistically, but what they were all interested in is so similar, especially in finding the humanity in their characters,” says Gugino. “They also were inspired to tell a story that was important — one that was about the bigger picture of life. What I fell in love with after reading Desire again is that it deals with large themes like possession, love, anger, and jealousy.”

Gugino is finding working with Tony Award-winning director Robert Falls for the first time — and the show’s unusually lengthy rehearsal process — to be a highlight of her career. “When I did After the Fall, Arthur was still alive, and I thought this might feel different. But I feel that way about O’Neill, because of Bob and because we’ve been able to delve into this play so deeply,” she says. “Ultimately, the love between Abbie and Eben (the son) is very devout. It’s a transformational relationship. Until then, she’s a woman who never knew what it would be like to be in love; she’s just a survivor who will do anything she has to to get what she needs. But what’s fascinating is that when she finally finds love, that’s all that matters to her. She’s willing to lose everything in life to sustain that love.”

Falls is taking a somewhat non-traditional approach to the play, presenting it as a 100-minute, intermissionless one-act, and making choices to ensure that the work feels modern. “Yes, it’s theoretically the 1850s, but it should feel like it takes place anywhere at any time,” she says. “Bob has reverence for O’Neill, but also the irreverence you need to do a play like this, which was shocking at the time it was written. He’s being influenced, I think, by non-naturalistic directors like Ivo Van Hove (who is also represented at the Festival), while making sure the play keeps its authenticity.”

And what has it been like working with Dennehy and Schreiber? “Brian and Bob have worked together for 25 years, and so they have their own process together that’s been great to observe. But we’re having a good time,” she says. “And the fact that Pablo is about a foot taller than me has created something interesting; we’re doing physical things that wouldn’t work with a slighter actor. Abbie has to win, and since I’m not going to win physically against Eben, it’s created other challenges. But nothing about this play is easy.”

Should Desire move to Broadway — a long-rumored possibility — is Gugino willing to take a break from Hollywood? “I love working and living in New York, which I do part of the year, and being able to do theater there is absolutely worth it.”

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Desire Under the Elms

Closed: March 1, 2009