DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS
By Eugene O’Neill
Directed by Robert Falls
@ The Goodman Theatre
The question probably fell to Robert Falls - How, in a time when audience’s attention spans are shorter than ever and pocketbooks aren’t as full as they used to be, do you make Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms a) marketable, and b) new? The piece, first published in 1924, is an American classic and not exactly the hottest piece one could hope for. But Robert Falls, Artistic Director of the Goodman Theatre and the director of Desire, turned a few things on it’s head and the play is all the better for it.
#1 – CASTING
First, he cast the show appallingly well.
Brian Dennehy stars as the tyrannical patriarch, Ephraim Cabot, who – after a long season of being gone from the family farm for the first time in over 30 years, comes home with a brand new wife, Abbie (played by Amy J. Carle.) Upon hearing the news of the wedding (which means that Abbie will now likely inherit the farm if Ephraim were to die), Ephraim’s youngest son Eben (Pablo Schreiber) is furious and butts heads with Abbie, who is every bit as hard-headed and determined to win the land as he is. Quickly, their battle dissolves to a lustful affair – and an epic downhome tragedy plays out – complete with sex, betrayal, dialects, and murder.
Dennehy, looking every inch the 70+ year old man who could still kick your ass (you whippersnappers!) gives a glorious performance. He’s hard-headed and cranky, and yet – you feel for this man. It’s quite an accomplishment. Pablo Schrieber, as Eben, manages to find different levels in a character that could easily have just been “angry young man with crush on hot stepmom.” Eben isn’t the smartest bulb on the porch, and Schreiber makes him.. an endearing dumbass.
Carla Gugino (of Spy Kids, Son-in-law, and film fame) started in this production in the role of Abbie and recieved glowing reviews for her powerful sexuality and onstage presence. Since the show extended, and she had to honor film committments (Watchmen, anyone?) her understudy, Amy J. Carle, has taken over – and I honestly cannot imagine Carla Gugino being any better than Carle. Carle is a powerhouse, the type of actress who grabs onto a role with her teeth and tears into it. Her portrayal of Abbie was smoking hot, ferocious, strong, and yet completely human and understandable in her desperation. I hope Carle goes on to big and amazing things in her career – she’s brilliant.
Special props also have to be given to Boris McGiver and Daniel Stewart Sherman, who appear only in the first part of the play as Ephraim’s older two sons, who take off for Cal-i-forn-i-a and the promise of gold the second they meet Abbie. These two – in addition to making likable characters out of two fools – are part of an opening sequence that I think will be lodged in my mind forever. It’s hard to explain, but it involves hauling rocks, and gutting a pig. And the smell of bacon actually being cooked onstage.
#2 – THE SET
Robert Falls’ second great trick was to cut the Elms.
I’m serious. There isn’t a tree to be seen, but the set is amazing.
When the curtain rises (to strange thundering music that immediately gets you in the right mood) the first word in your head is – Rocks. Falls has surrounded the entire stage with enormous boulders piled high into a mini-mountain. They even hang from the heavens by big ropes. So much of Ephraim’s dialouge is about “fields of rocks” and how “hard” he is – it’s a brilliant choice. The set, like Ephraim himself, is insurmountable.
Then, theres the house. It hangs from the rafters and towers over every scene, another amazingly imposing figure overseeing everything. As the underlying question of the play is “Who will get this farm?” it makes sense to, literally, have it right over the heads of the dueling characters the whole time.
In addition, things rise out of the stage and vanish constantly. It might be my favorite set I’ve ever seen.
#3 – STREAMLINED/MODERNIZATION
The third amazing magic trick Dr. Falls pulled was to do some streamlining and modernizing.
The show clocks in at a tidy hour and forty minutes with no intermission – and it feels like its even faster than that.
He also accompanied sequences of time passing with modern sounding folk music – including a dinner sequence.
It could be described as “slightly MTV-ing” the piece, but hey – we’re dealing with a whole new world in which entertainment lives these days. If you want audiences to swallow a classic, you might have to make it a little sparkly, you know?
I have minor issues with the show – the first few minutes of dialouge were awfully muddled from our Mezzanine seats, and got me worried that the whole show was going to be indecipherable. O’Neill wrote accents into the lines, and Falls stuck to those religiously.
But overall – I thought it rocked and am delighted that I got to see it.
Oh, AND — The Goodman’s killer production of Desire Under the Elms will be transferring to Broadway, aiming for an April 27th opening at the St. James Theatre. I smell Tony nominations.