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A CurtainUp Review

Desire Under the Elms
By Les Gutman

We seem to be living in the midst of a full-fledged resurgence of interest in the plays of Eugene O'Neill. After seeing a few of these (to quote the press releases) "rarely performed" works, it is not hard to understand why. While O'Neill's tragedies require that we muster all of our strength just to watch them, they address questions that have lost none of their resonance. More importantly perhaps, they do so in a language, and with a force, that has rarely -- if ever -- been matched.

O'Neill set Desire Under the Elms on a Connecticut farm in the middle of the 19th Century. It was thus "history" in 1924 when he wrote it. He has been dead long enough now that the temptation to re-interpret his scrupulously detailed play has become overwhelming. This production, by the Peccadillo Theater Company, boldly adds a new twist for its audience to ponder.

As usual with O'Neill, Desire centers on a family, here the Cabot Family. We first meet the three sons of Ephraim Cabot: Simeon (Evans Johnson) and Peter (Robert G. Siverls), from his first marriage, and Eben (Carl Jay Cofield), from his second. All three live and work on the farm. The three things the sons have in common are a resentment of their father, a hunger to own his farm (a condition that seems contagious in these parts) and the fact they are portrayed in this production by African American actors.

This is not color-blind casting: the racial overlay on O'Neill's white-as-picket-fences Connecticut setting is quite intentional. The opening scenes are a delicious portrayal of the boys' life without father. Performed ably, and to great comic effect, it is immediately apparent, particularly in the elder sons, that the voices we are hearing are not those of O'Neill's New England farm boys. When, after a lengthy, unannounced absence, Ephraim (George Bartenieff) returns with a new bride less than half his age, Abbie (Devora Millman), both perfectly cast to O'Neill's original (that is to say white New England farmer) specifications, the thrust of the intended racial confrontation becomes manifest. We will return to this topic later.

As father and new wife arrive, Simeon and Peter depart to seek gold in California. Simeon and Peter have given their "rights" to the farm to Eben, in exchange for the money they need to head West. A new contestant (Abbie) of course has now appeared to compete with Eben for "his" farm.

The competition takes a sharp turn when Abbie seduces Eben, and they seemingly fall in love. Freud pays a theoretical visit when we learn Eben also views his relationship with Abbie as his mother's revenge against his father. Sticky questions of love, hate, revenge, greed and trust abound. When Abbie tells Ephraim she wants to have a baby, she neglects to mention, and septagenarian Ephraim neglects to notice, what seems obvious to everyone else: it is Eben's child. With the child, new complications ensue for the Cabots, with gruesome, tragic consequences.

O'Neill fashions his plot with enormous detail and overwhelming emotional intensity. Characters are developed first in relation to very elemental things (like sky, stones and land), and then in terms of structures (things like barns, fences, walls and, of course, elm trees). Values are understood through these symbols. Ephraim, Abbie and Eben Cabot are not people possessed of a care-free existence. Ephraim is a hard man, and hardness to him is a virtue.

This production, which is to be applauded for bringing this classic to the stage, unfortunately misses this point. Bent on lightening the load for the audience, Director Dan Wackerman hollows the temperament of the characters. When Ephraim Cabot says he likes to sleep in the barn so he can take lessons on life from the cows, that's not the punch line of a joke. He's serious, and needs to be taken that way. When Eben spews hate at his father, this is no immature frustration; his anger is deep.

The problem here is not the acting. All three participants in the "love triangle" -- Bartenieff (celebrating his 50th year as an actor), Cofield and Millman are splendid actors who offer painstakingly studied performances. They would have been perfect in a family that carries around lesser burdens. But Desire should not be an easy pill to swallow.

The question of the race-based casting also needs to be addressed. The first question is, does this play need a "new" issue? O'Neill presents us with complex psychological issues, and an opportunity to examine in detail the motivations for incest and infanticide -- which are still very topical. Addressing race, although commendable, of necessity distracts from these intended subjects. Wackerman introduces an additional African American woman (Sarallen), called Silent Woman in the playbill. She actually speaks lots, but only with her eyes and body and is extraordinarily effective, no matter what one concludes about the wisdom of adding her character. When one of the townfolk rubs coal dust on his face to mock Eben, Silent Woman, showing the sadness and alienation she feels, wanders away in her silence, unearthing a myriad of race-related considerations.

There is a second, more important, question:  is the import of the race issue realized? In a play which so carefully develops the underlying motivations and values that fuel the tragedy, the exposition on race relations seems skeletal and superficial. Perhaps in a less finely orchestrated play, this would not be as noticeable. Here, it is never integrated into the fabric of the work, and thus seems unrefined

All of the criticism of the treatment to the contrary, this Desire does not undermine the fact that it is a satisfying, well-acted production of a masterpiece always well worth seeing..The sets, by Dennis Eisenberg, are well-thought out and exploit every inch of the small theater. The audience enters through the gate to the farm, and walks over straw to reach its seats. (In this age of hyper-concern for potential liability for perils to which audiences are exposed, a sign warning of the dangers of walking on straw is duly posted at the theater entrance.) The sky and stone walls which are such important features of the Cabot farm are beautifully rendered. The other production values are quite impressive as well, especiallygiven the small size of this production.

Editor's Note: If this review has whetted your interest in O'Neill, you might want to check out the autobiography of the actress considered one of the finest interpreters of his female characters, Colleen Dewhurst. (our review of that book)--and another O'Neill review posted by Les less than a week after this one--Ah Wilderness.

by Eugene O'Neill
Directed by Dan Wackerman
Starring Carl Jay Cofield, George Bartenieff and Devora Millman
Kraine Theater, 85 East 4th Street (212) 460-8165
6/10-8/03, 1997

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