DC Theater Reviews
Under the Elms
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
January 11th 2007
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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!"
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.
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.
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drives characters to lust, revenge and tragedy
N@DL ?d you
think to utter "Eugene O'Neill" and "Fabio" in the same breath,
but with "Desire Under the Elms" the esteemed playwright reveals
his bodice-ripping side in this tale of sex, revenge, and a
19th century game of "Who's your daddy?"
This potboiler comes with a pedigree. For his 1924 foray
into American realism, Mr. O'Neill looked to the Greeks, incorporating
elements of the Oedipus trilogy, "Medea" and "Phaedra," into
his tragedy about a New England farming family. The Cabot
clan's flinty patriarch, Ephraim (Kevin Adams), may thunder
about a hard and wrathful God, but it seems to be a Christian
one in name only. Ephraim's worship and florid deification
of the Earth and nature suggests a pagan connection, and the
mingling of lust and fertility (agrarian and otherwise) leads
you to believe Dionysus may be the man upstairs.
Similarly, the cool-eyed actions of Ephraim's third wife
Abbie (Susan Marie Rhea), a young and hot-to-trot woman who
brazenly throws herself at youngest son Eben (Parker Dixon),
recall the epic, single-minded rage of Medea.
Destiny in the Greek sense of the word is at work here, as
the characters march toward their prescribed fates. A strain
of fatalism runs throughout "Desire Under the Elms" in the
patterns of incest that emerge in the Cabot family. Not only
do father and son share Abbie, the sexual opportunism also
goes back in generations of Cabots, including Eben's brothers
Simeon (John Geoffrion) and Peter (Colin Smith), who join
in sharing Min, the town prostitute. A bit of too-close for
comfort coziness appears to have existed between Eben and
his late mother, Ephraim's second wife, as well.
In American Century Theater's stark and taut production under
the firm guidance of William Aitken, there isn't a lot to
distract you from the characters and their physical desires.
A three-level set gives the barest suggestion of a comfortable
Yankee farmhouse and some dulcimer music provides a sense
of time, but character and psychological forces otherwise
drive this production.
And what characters they are. Ephraim, vigorously played
by Mr. Adams, displays the fury and indifferent cruelty of
the god he so adamantly calls upon in time of need. He is
more a biblical figurehead than a man, a contrast to the poetry
and fumbling awareness of the character of Eben. Mr. Dixon's
sensitive portrayal shows Eben to be keenly aware of the natural
forces that shape him and his family, although he is not completely
beholden to them. His struggles to rebel against or reshape
his destiny make him a modern creation.
While her choices are those of a Greek tragedy heroine, the
character of Abbie straddles dramatic traditions. Abbie sins
against nature and pays for it, but there is also a sense
that after the total destruction of the life she tries so
hard to hold onto, she achieves a certain freedom and love
previously denied to her.
Concentrating on the play's motif of sex, death and lost
mothers was a wise move for American Century, a theater with
modest resources. By emphasizing strong acting and epic characters,
this is a "Desire Under the Elms" that deserves to emerge
from the shadows.
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Arlington Weekly News TV
Under the Elms"
"Arlington Weekly News TV"
Broadcast Thurs., 1/11, 6 p.m.; Sat., 1/13, 10:30 a.m.; Sat.,
1/15, 8:30 p.m.
exactly a light-hearted show to kick off the new year, but
if you're looking for a powerful drama-The American Century
Theater has it! I'm talking about Eugene O'Neill's, "Desire
Under the Elms." It's set in the mid-1800's on a small
farm and is about 71 year old Ephrain Cabot (Kevin Adams)
and his three sons and what happens when the hardhearted patriarch
marries a young woman, Abbie (Susan Marie Rhea). Adams is
everything the role calls for in a bitter old man. It isn't
too long before Abbie sets her lustful ambitions on the youngest
son, Eban (Parker Dixon) who, at first, rejects her. Dixon
is convincing as the reluctant sexual target. A baby is born
to Abbie and soon is dead because of her insane lust for Eban.
Earlier in the first act, the two older brothers, Simean and
Peter, played by John Geoffrion and Colin Smith, leave the
farm with contempt for the old man and set up a poisoned atmosphere.
William Aitken's direction is gripping and gritty with outstanding
acting by Susan Marie Rhea on loan from The Keegan Theatre.
Don't miss this production of "Desire Under the Elms"
by The American Century Theater at Gunston Theater through
Feb. 3. Call 703-533-8782 for information and tickets.
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