By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
A New York Times review of a 1963 revival of Eugene O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms starring George C. Scott and Colleen Dewhurst is essentially positive about the playwright but does acknowledge a general perception that the play is "creaky and old-fashioned" and seems the "rudimentary" consequence of a "naïve writer working in a rustic vein." This, mind you, is a 37-year-old assessment, and although most major writers experience ebbs and flows of reputation if they're lucky enough to be discussed across the decades, I have never been able to shake a college professor's rather unflattering assessment of O'Neill that the Nobel winner overwrote humorlessly and often.
There can be little argument that O'Neill was the 20th century's first important stage experimenter in form, style and psychological realism (or Freudian cant, depending on your interpretation). He was also one of the first American playwrights to benefit financially from the published texts of his scripts during his lifetime. An argument has been posited that as O'Neill developed, he wrote as much or more for readers as for theatergoers. Maybe this explains the chunky, prosaic dialogue exchanged between his doomed dreamers, betrayers and lovers. That talk was given a stylized, clipped New England accent with Desire Under the Elms, which chronicles patriarchal collapse on a 19th-century farm. For WaterTower Theatre's new staging, director Terry Martin has recast the Cabot family of men as Appalachian tillers of the soil, with words such as "yours" and "hers" recast as "yourn" and "hern." It's not especially distracting (a frequent complaint of those who've heard the original Nor'easter dialect spoken as written), but also not effective or necessary. WaterTower's Desire benefits from one memorable performance, but the other actors range from blandly presentational to unintentionally comical. I'm going to blame Martin and O'Neill equally for this; if a director cannot find a way to spice up this 1923 drama's undercooked structure and boiled-over emotionalism, it should be left to the classroom.
Desire Under the Elms runs through May 5 at WaterTower Theatre, 15650 Addison Road, Addison. Call (972) 450-6232.
Ephraim Cabot (Chris Messersmith, blustering to little avail in too much white powder on his hair and face) is the unforgiving elderly ruler of the farm where his three sons' endless labor is seemingly fueled by hatred for him. Youngest Eben (an unforceful Thom Penn) is especially embittered, because the land belonged to his mother and he believes Ephraim worked her to death and stole it. His attraction to the old man's new young wife Abbie (Morgana Shaw) is initially for reasons of vengeance; she, an orphan, angles to eclipse Eben's inheritance claim. Feelings change, loyalties reverse, a baby is made, and the family is destroyed. But we have problems developing strong sentiments about any of these characters. Equally adept at venom and pathos, Shaw is the only one onstage who keeps us watching her desperation and conflicted emotions. But she drowns in the cornpone stew of incestuous implications and ruinous fates O'Neill has concocted. At the play's too-abrupt close, as Messersmith huffs and puffs their comeuppance, she and Penn pose together facing the audience, frozen in an expressionless embrace. This stiff tableau of thwarted domesticity contains about as many identifiable signs of life as all the clamor that preceded it.