Desire Under the Elms
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
April 30, 2009
The unnerving opening sequence of director Robert Falls's new revival of Desire under the Elms sets the tone for the rest of the production: two brothers, Peter and Simeon Cabot, looking as if they might drop dead from exhaustion at any moment, pull a load of heavy rocks across the stage, stack them in a pile, then gut and drain a dead pig hanging over a large basin. Played against the backdrop of Walt Spangler's oppressive boulder-laden set and the percussion-driven portents of Richard Woodbury's ominous score, one knows right away that the characters are going to be in for an ugly time of it.
Their pending misfortunes, however, present a multitude of bounties for theatergoers. Fans of serious drama will most likely find themselves satisfied and thrilled by The Goodman Theatre's Broadway transfer of Eugene O'Neill's classic tragedy, which is brilliantly conceived by Falls and his design team, and just as brilliantly acted (for the most part) by its fiery and relentless cast.
Set in 1850 New England, Desire under the Elms tells the story of the Cabots' struggle for control of the family farm. Patriarch Ephraim lords over the property with an iron hand and forces his three sons into enforced serfdom to maintain it. Each son—the older, rougher-around-the-edges Peter and Simeon, and the younger, more spiteful Eben—hopes to inherit it. But when Ephraim marries a much younger woman, the willful and driven Abbie Putnam, the sons know the farm will eventually go to her. Peter and Simeon run away to seek their fortunes in the California Gold Rush, leaving Eben to fight it out with Ephraim and Abbie for the farm.
Complications arise, however, when Eben and new stepmom Abbie find themselves undeniably attracted to each other—a temptation which they finally give in to. Since this is an O'Neill play, it goes without saying that things don't end well for anyone.
There are many different kinds of the titular emotion on display, but it's the desire for ownership—of both the farm and each other—that drives the characters the most. They view ownership as the ultimate manifestation of personal freedom, none of them the wiser that their single-minded pursuit turns each of their lives into a prison. Falls conveys this idea forcefully with Spangler's set design, a rock quarry that surrounds the playing area and makes escape difficult. Some boulders create walls dozens of feet high, others hang behind a scrim as if sinking into the ocean. The set mirrors O'Neill's language, which is rough and flinty throughout ("It's spring and I'm feeling damned!" one of the characters recalls), and the overall effect is powerfully unsettling.
Sexual desire gets plenty of attention, as well. Pablo Schreiber and Carla Gugino play Abbie and Eben like wild animals in heat, and Falls emphasizes their attraction effectively in an extended montage set to Bob Dylan's "Not Dark Yet." (Falls employs many such anachronistic and impressionistic touches throughout the production to spectacular effect.)
Most of the cast is in excellent form, with Brian Dennehy leading the way as the brutish Ephraim. His towering frame and booming voice instill the requisite fear (his best moment comes when he scathingly taunts Eben through a veil of drunken merriment) but he touchingly reveals the character's loneliness in a long monologue about his desire for connection with another. Gugino is all smolder and gritty determination as a seductress who regularly draws blood while trying to claw and scratch her way to the top of the social order. Boris McGiver and Daniel Stewart Sherman are both powerful in their brief appearances as Peter and Simeon, evoking a creepy hybrid of idiot savants and overworked pack animals. Only Schreiber fails to rise to the heights of his castmates. His performance is far too polished and studied to be convincing in these surroundings."You can read the story of my life written in these stone walls," Ephraim declares in a rare moment of vulnerability, and the same can be said of everyone else in Desire under the Elms. This is a production that makes one feel the cumulative toll of years filled with dirt-cracked skin, backbreaking labor, and barely concealed greed and resentment. The fate of the farm hangs in the balance (literally: a built-to-scale farmhouse hangs from the rafters, suspended over the action throughout—another bravura move by Spangler) in a play that Falls and his gifted collaborators save from what could easily become laughable clichés. Granted, the outcome may not surprise anyone, but getting there will take theatergoers on one of the most exciting and cathartic journeys they're likely to go on anytime soon.