NEW YORK – Don’t look for elms on stage. There aren’t any. But desire is front and center in the blistering revival of Eugene O’Neill’s “Desire Under the Elms” that has barreled its way into Broadway’s St. James Theatre.
The production from Chicago’s Goodman Theatre is big and booming, almost operatic in its intensity and expansiveness. And it’s stocked with oversized yet effective performances that hold their own against a gargantuan setting of rocks and a giant farmhouse that literally hangs in the air for much of the evening. That forbidding structure is the centerpiece of designer Walt Spangler’s grandiose set design.
“Desire Under the Elms” is a challenge for any director and cast. Fortunately, director Robert Falls and a terrific cast headed by Brian Dennehy, Carla Gugino and Pablo Schreiber are at the top of their game.
The play, first seen on Broadway in 1924, is very much of its time. It contains the most melodramatic of dialogue, awash in flinty, mid-19th century New England twang. Overheated declarations of love and hate flow with the frequency of water running from a tap. No use trying for naturalism here. Falls’ vision is one of monumental tragedy inspired by scorching sexual attraction.
But that “desire” of the play’s title is not just lust. Greed gives carnality spirited competition, particularly in the bitter struggle over ownership of that airborne farmhouse and its surrounding land.
Craggy patriarch Ephraim Cabot is portrayed by Dennehy, an actor who exudes natural theatrical authority. Physically and vocally robust, he has the aura of an unforgiving Old Testament prophet in his roaring portrait of a man as hard as the land he so fiercely tends.
When Ephraim brings home a new, much younger wife (Gugino), it sets off a battle for turf, particularly between his bride, Abbie, and the farmer’s youngest son, Eben, portrayed by a brooding and mesmerizing Schreiber. Eben’s red-hot resentment over being usurped for the farm gives way to a smoldering attraction that Schreiber and Gugino turn into a full-fledged conflagration.
You can see why the sparks ignite. Gugino’s Abbie is striking, not only for her sensuousness, but for the determination with which she goes after what she wants – whether it is the farm or her belligerent stepson.
The consummation of their affair – in the farmhouse parlor that was Eben’s mother’s favorite room – is played full throttle. But then nothing is done halfway in this production, which Falls has cut to an intermissionless 100 minutes while eliminating some of the play’s minor characters.
Still present, though, are Eben’s older half-brothers, portrayed with an almost savage, caveman sensibility by the wonderful Daniel Stewart Sherman and Boris McGiver. Their existence is beyond hard-scrapple.
Over the years, Dennehy and Falls have had an enormously productive relationship with O’Neill, having worked together on such plays as “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” “Hughie,” “A Touch of the Poet” and “The Iceman Cometh.”
“Desire Under the Elms” may not be of such high rank as “Long Day’s Journey” or “Iceman,” but Falls’ startling, enormously imaginative reinvention makes a strong case of it. In other words, this revival is a must for any serious theatergoer.