Produced by The American Century Theater
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
Parker Dixon (left) Susan Marie Rhea (center), Kevin Adams (right) (Photo: Jeffrey Bell)
The American Century Theater (TACT) can be commended for producing revivals of rarely performed, American masterpieces like Desire Under the Elms from Nobel Laureate playwright Eugene O’Neill in a compelling and beautiful way. Judging from the staging at the Gunston Theatre II in Arlington, TACT’s mission is not impossible.
Desire Under the Elms is a play of horrific beauty. O’Neill once said Desire Under the Elms, written in 1924, was an adaptation of the Oedipus story about a son’s incestuous relationship with his mother. In Desire, what makes this incest bearable is that Eben Cabot’s (Parker Dixon) relationship with his young stepmother, Abbie (Susan Marie Rhea), is in reality, natural love. “It’s Nature,” Abbie cries out to Eben in the seduction scene, as if fate has brought them together. Abbie‘s pairing with the 25-year-old Eben makes more sense than her marriage of convenience to Eben’s father, the 75-year-old Ephraim (Kevin Adams).
But this tale isn’t from a romantic vision of the past, and Abbie is no victim. All the characters confront a destiny as harsh as the stones. Abbie’s only hope for betterment is to marry the old man for his farm. Ownership of land can replace spiritual emptiness. Possession is all. Sons are enslaved for farm labor. All three Cabot sons share a loathing for their father’s tyrannical rule and a thirsting to own the land. The older boys, Simeon (John Geoffrian) and Peter (Colin Smith) plot to break their bondage. Ebon buys them out with his deceased mother’s money, and the two older brothers leave for the California gold rush. When, having worked his first two wives to death, Ephraim brings Abbie home as wife number three, Eben’s existence is threatened. If Abbie can birth an heir, she will get the land.
The American Dream turns into a nightmare. Eben’s desire subdues his good judgment. Although he still senses the ghost of the mother he adored, he allows Abbie to seduce him. The scenes working up to the seduction scene play with tremendous irony. At one point, Ephraim describes his first two marriages as greater loneliness than he’d ever known. Meanwhile, Abbie, the Rose of Sharon he longed for, sits in his bed and stares across stage through imaginary walls into the eyes of Eben, isolated in his room. It’s a great moment. Their awareness of each other foreshadows the seduction scene that follows.
But with seduction – this is O’Neill, after all – comes tragedy, and the particular tragedy of this play, with its echoes of Medea, is wonderfully difficult to take. Only by surrendering to the embrace of O’Neill’s poetry can one fully appreciate the awfulness of the choice Abbie makes and Eben’s agonizingly difficult response.
TACT’s production is true to the power of O’Neill’s intention, without reproducing all the traditional elements. The overpowering, brooding elms, which support the theme of Nature’s mysterious, oppressive power in this play are left to our imagination. In TACT’s production, that’s okay. To represent a New England farmhouse in the 1850s, the Gunston Theatre II black box stage is stripped to its core of all curtains and side drapes. Stage area lighting, designed by Scott Fulsome suggests the interior and exterior of a house – the kitchen, the upstairs bedrooms, the parlor, the outside porch where Eben gazes at the stars or Ephraim expresses his lust for the land. Black space and actual stones, scattered downstage, dominate the set.
Against this stark backdrop, an ensemble of five solid actors, directed by William Aitken, deliver intensely lean, well-thought-out performances. O’Neill’s surrealistic dialogue takes getting used to. The characters vent their basic instincts. They speak out where normal people, in real life, would be silent. They express their primal urges and subconscious thoughts, rather than make polite, everyday conversation.
Throughout, there’s strong communion between the actors. The entrances from the center aisle, and circular patterns of stage movement, work well to bring us into the action. The levels of the performances deepen and grow throughout the evening. The well-articulated, down east dialect is commendably clear. Dialogue coach John Geoffrion, who also plays Simeon, has done a good job. Actor Park Dixon, with monumental stubbornness in his stage presence, convinces us redemption is possible. In a sense, Eben represents the next step in evolution. Eben surpasses his father’s obsessive greed. Eben loves a woman enough to renounce his rights to the land and go to prison with Abbie. The reality of this renunciation is overwhelming.
Susan Marie Rhea as Abbie Putnam projects the intensity behind O’Neill’s language. The character’s transition from embittered schemer to seductress and then to lover isn’t clear, but Rhea is a good actor and her performance, which conveys a sweetness that avoids raw carnality, will deepen with time. When she finally begs for Eben’s love, it is wrenching. The annihilation of innocence is never pretty to watch, but here it’s bearable because it’s underplayed, not melodramatic. You hate the act; you pity the woman.
Dixon’s Eben radiates a monumental stubbornness which ultimately convinces us that redemption is possible. In a sense, Eben represents the next step in evolution. Eben surpasses his father’s obsessive greed. When he finally discovers a higher value, the reality of his renunciation of his past is overwhelming.
What makes Desire Under the Elms a masterpiece is O’Neill’s rich, poetic language that flows in this production: Images of midday heat, blood, bone and sweat on soil, golden sunsets, the promise of the American Dream fulfilled in the California gold fields. The Cabot family ekes out survival from that stony New England soil. Ephraim’s Scene Two soliloquy, which Adams delivers with a stoical bitterness depicts life as a “field of stones,” symbolic of his hard life, his labor to make plants grow. “God’s hard, not easy!” Ephraim bellows. “God’s in the stones!”
Director Aitken’s choice of music offers contrast to the play’s dark and violent action. Subdued, plucked, dulcimer-like instrumentals, forty-niner songs and fiddling music provide bridges between scenes and suggest the 1850s.
There’s one flaw in this production. The fiddlers’ party scene with the townspeople is missing. Ephraim’s grotesque, Dionysian dance of total abandon in the party scene is necessary. Believing he has fathered Abbie’s son Ephraim is drunk with power. He cavorts to the fiddler’s music, in an uninhibited Dionysian jig. Ironically, he’s surrounded by gossiping townspeople, who ridicule him as a cuckold. Perhaps there is a shortage of extras in the community? That party scene is needed to lift the play’s heaviness with celebratory relief.
I once had a high school drama teacher who addicted me to reading O’Neill. My adolescent rebellion resonated in these plays. The basic questions raised about parental control and a father’s claim on his sons still seem relevant. But this TACT version confirms my original point: O’Neill is better seen and heard than read.
Performances of TACT’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms continue through Feb. 3, 2007, at Gunston Theatre II, 2700 S. Lang Street, Arlington, VA.22206. Wed.-Sat. at 8 P.M., and 2:30 matinees on Jan. 14, 21, 27 and Feb. 3. Tickets are $23-29. This play is not suitable for children under 18. Active military personnel with proper ID see the play for free. Visit http://www.americancentury.org/. or call 703-553-8782 for tickets and information.