As he did with his groundbreaking 1999 revival of Death of a Salesman, Robert Falls shatters expectations and forces us to rethink an American classic. His new production of Eugene O’Neill’s 1924 Desire Under the Elms, now on Broadway after a run at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, defies popular conceptions of the play and O’Neill’s work in general. This is not one of O’Neill’s most frequently produced plays. If not staged properly, its thick plot of oedipal passions exploding on a 19th-century New England farm can come across as soap opera rather than grand opera.
But there’s nothing melodramatic or phony about this intense, sizzling revival. Falls wisely eschews naturalism and sets the play on a desolate rock-strewn heath. A triangle of greed and sexual rivalry is played out in this forbidding environment under an enormous suspended farmhouse, which hangs over the action like a crushing weight ready to drop at any moment. Designer Walt Spangler deserves full marks for creating a hellish setting that works as both a metaphor for the characters’ struggles and the world in which they eat, sleep, and—to put it delicately—fornicate. That last-named activity is the driving force here, defying O’Neill’s reputation for writing too many long monologues. The running time is a swift 100 minutes, and many of the passions are conveyed without words.
Brian Dennehy, who starred as Willy Loman in Falls’ heartbreaking Death of a Salesman, plays Ephraim Cabot, the hard-bitten patriarch tenaciously clinging to his land and life. Locked in a death struggle with his youngest son, Eben (Pablo Schreiber), for possession of the farm, Ephraim marries Abbie (Carla Gugino), a much younger woman with designs of her own on the property. When Abbie falls in love—and lust—with Eben, events take a tragic turn. Played too realistically, this could seem like an episode of Desperate Housewives. Fortunately, all three leads give larger-than-life performances to match the outsized, fantastic setting.
The brightest and most intense dramatic and sexual fireworks are delivered by Gugino. She totally commits to Abbie’s objective: to find a home, at first on the farm and then in Eben’s arms. Like a rural combination of Medea and PhÃ¨dre, she will stop at nothing to achieve her ends.
Daniel Stewart Sherman and Boris McGiver effectively play Eben’s mouth-breathing stepbrothers, completing this blazing and revitalized Desire Under the Elms.