Desire Under the Elms
In an introduction to Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms, the celebrated chronicler of shattered illusions notes about those titular trees that “there is a sinister maternity in their aspect, a crushing, jealous absorption?.They brood oppressively over the house.” Taking such care –and imposing prose — to describe the elms, O’Neill obviously considers their presence of no little importance. But in the only intermittently effective revival of the 1924 bodice-ripping gloom-and-doomer, which has transferred to Broadway’s St. James Theatre from Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, director Robert Falls waves the elms off and has set designer Walt Spangler replace them with stones the size of boulders.
Those rocks represent the quarry that farm owner Ephraim Cabot (Brian Dennehy) and sons Simeon (Daniel Stewart Sherman) and Peter (Boris McGiver) work from dawn to dusk. He also has Spangler raise and lower a two-story brown clapboard house on straining ropes. Indeed, so many of Falls’ additions read like pretentious symbols, starting with a preface showing the Cabot boys hauling a pallet of those cumbersome objects to establish the hardscrabble life lived on the farm and — who knows? — illustrate humanity’s eternal burden.
O’Neill begins the play directly by having those middle-aged boys called in for dinner by ostensibly milder half-brother Eben (Pablo Schreiber). Grousing about their absent father, the three learn soon enough that Ephraim has married his third (and much younger) wife, Abbie (Carla Gugino). As soon as she arrives, the complications start firing and backfiring. Having snared the old man to secure a home of her own, Abbie has to fight off Eben, who maintains the farm was given to him by his late “maw.” Soon enough, though, Abbie is falling for Eben, and he, reluctantly, for her. Their resulting “desire” include tabletop gropes, a nude bathing scene for Eben, a son Ephraim mistakenly thinks is his, and other twists that lead inexorably to tragic ends.
In contrast with the maternal feel that O’Neill requires for his throbbing melodrama, Falls substitutes paternal oppressiveness. Moreover, while large-scale passions are definitely the order of the day, Falls equates them with the actors shouting at the top of possibly diseased lungs. Abbie and Eben hold their initial shared gaze for long, wordless seconds — to notify spectators that lust-at-first-sight has struck meteor-like — but it’s one of the few moments throughout the 100-minute play when he doesn’t insist the characters yell out of rage or sheer spite.
The misguided emphasis on volume takes its toll on the performances by these five clearly accomplished actors. Gugino, who gets to flash her breathtaking legs, and Schreiber, who has a body ripe for the cover of Men’s Health, may circle and grope each other like animals in heat, but the unchanging decibel level precludes much sense of their interior lives. Dennehy has the same problem, although his abrupt aging at the denouement is impressive. Still, this is a rocky production in every sense of the word.