THEATER REVIEW: Desire Under the Elms
Set on a Connecticut farm circa 1850, Desire Under the Elms revolves around Ephraim Cabot (Brian Dennehy) and his three sons; Simeon (Daniel Stewart Sherman) and Peter (Boris McGiver) from his first marriage and Eben (Pablo Schreiber) from his second. Both wives are gone, having worked themselves to the bone, and the tone lingering in the beginning is rather solemn, almost lethal. Enter Abbie Putnam (Carla Gugino) as Ephraim’s third (and very beautiful) wife who causes temperatures to soar with her heated desires for Eben, thus begins a twisted love affair full of ill-fated promises and mouth-watering passion.
At first we are confronted by Walt Spangler’s ominous set. Numerous gigantic stones are hung with ropes above a quarry-like valley. Floating in mid-air is a modest sized house that rises and looms over the setting. Richard Woodbury’s hypnotic soundscape echoes of ambient beats tingling in Eno-like fashion. There is a pervading gloom surrounding this land, and as we meet the three brothers who are subjected to harsh labor, we find ourselves in a lonely, unforgiving world. It’s clear that all three brothers are resentful toward Ephraim who toils the land without regard to much affection or guidance. Played skillfully by both actors, Simeon and Peter portray a sweaty, troglodyte behavior toward their younger half brother, and if it weren’t for their short-sided greed, they might have made a good living. Eben schemes to entice his older brothers to travel West in search of gold, harboring his own plan to inherit the farm without their influence. The arrival of Abbie coincides with the departure of the two brothers.
When Abbie and Eben first make eye contact, we feel an animalistic heartbeat underneath, and as the scene progresses there is a magnetic force eager to ease the suffering of these two souls. Gugino’s delicate attitude toward Schreiber’s sculpted body matches his insolent behavior toward her advances, and we cannot wait to see these two wrapped around each other. Gugino plays Abbie with an intensity and iron fragility that flashes between opulence and despair. Schreiber knows Eben’s innocence and has the talent to whip out a violent burst without warning. There are Freudian questions of love and/or manipulation when Abbie draws Eben to his dead mother’s chambers, leading to a steamy transaction. Nine months later a baby boy is born, and Abbie must resort to shedding the burden that has forced her to live a lie.
Euguene O’Neil’s poetic words are not easy to read, but if played well they can transcend sublimity. Robert Falls has directed such a masterpiece, but some of his staging upstages some important speeches. For example, Dennehy delivers an outstanding monologue explaining his character’s rise to self-made success, while Gugino and Schreiber engage in a symbolic pas des deaux illustrating their longing for each other. With such strong language and simple, direct performances, do we need more visuals to understand? That said, this production moves without a lull and clocks in at 100 minutes. Superb set design, fine acting, and scandalous sex leaves nothing to be desired.
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