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Eugene O’Neill's 'Desire Under the Elms'

Alice Singleton

This is allegory for the modern reality-show line-up – its classic Jerry Springer and Maury Povich on perpetual familial loop.

Desire Under the Elms runs through Sunday, 1st March at the Goodman Theatre, Chicago, as part of the series “A Global Exploration: Eugene O’Neill in the 21st Century”.

Desire Under the Elms directed by Robert Falls transfer to Broadway with original Chicago cast intact. Previews begin 14 April, opening 27 April 2009 at St. James Theatre

“What God and money have joined together, let no man put asunder”, so the Texas oilman’s creed goes. Why not? and the National Enquirer would not exist if this axiom bore no truth.

Robert Falls directs a seamless production of Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms as allegory for the modern reality-show line-up – its classic Jerry Springer and Maury Povich on perpetual familial loop: the cold-blooded father that sees his children as merely vultures hating his live body, waiting to pick the lint from his burial frocks and leave the carcass weighted down to Hell by the sins committed while earning and hording the wealth that kept the ungrateful progeny in physical comfort in the first place.

Perhaps O’Neill was a playwright Nostradamus, receiving visions of those ungrateful scions currently amongst us, those that feed lavishly at the limited trough of their parents, and in one moment borne in fear, hatred, and just plain old ethics, strike out their givers-of-life and kill any chance of there ever being another formal sitting for family portraits. One wonders if each time Bernard Madoff glimpses his electronic bracelet, does he regret not siring less ethical/more pathological sons? Did Lady Astor reach lucidity on occasion to wonder how her own son could steal away her fortune?

Brian Dennehy’s Ephraim Cabot has no room for the perceived regrets of the Astors and Madoffs – he openly despises his three boys. Simeon (Daniel Stewart Sherman) and Peter (Boris McGiver) are middle-aged half-wits, working their old man’s slaughterhouse and rock quarry per papa’s absentee instructions. Simeon and Peter’s younger half-brother, Eben (Pablo Schreiber), acts as senior-manager rot to the family business, whiling away on the front porch, barking out the next task to his siblings, and thinking really hard on what to do with his inheritance when Ephraim meets his maker – be it up- or downstairs.

A hot summer’s day finds Eben hotter – Ephraim will be arriving with his young bride. Adding insult to the injury of being left off the wedding guest list, Abbie Putnam (Carla Gugino) brings a cataclysmic change of transfer of wealth in the Cabot household. Eben is livid – all of “it” was to be his, Ephraim promised his mother on her deathbed. Simeon and Peter are not sharp, but they have survived by the sweat of their labor and jointly make the clear-headed decision to pursue their gold-rushing dreams in California, even if they have to walk to get there.

The birth of Eben left them marginalized; the new missus cuts them out. Ephraim’s nuptials relieve them from any familial obligation, they get to live in exile, but live as men for the first time in their lives. But Eben defiantly declares that (he) ain’t going nowhere, having sunk to self-commitment to expunge the rival of his entitlement.

Ephraim and Abbie’s arrival brings with it the full effect of Ephraim’s urine and vinegar swill. Ephraim mocks and taunts Eben’s inability to make his own fortune and find his very own sweet young wife. “It’ mine now; it’ll still be mine when I die”, Ephraim growls at son and bride. It’s his world, they happen to live in it, and he determines what the table serves up as daily bread.

Eben openly seethes at his father, never hiding behind diplomacy or respect for the elder. He calls out Abbie for the gold digging crypt keeper she appears to be, and Abbie does not waste her time with winning Eben over as an adopted son; instead she erotically hammers at him in the smoldering heat of summer, until he becomes her lover. Eben tries to convince himself that the affair avenges his mother’s posthumous heartache over Ephraim’s deathbed betrayal. Abbie is self-assured that her affair guarantees her inheritance of a real home for the first time in her life, after all, how long can 76-year-old Ephraim last, both lovers ponder.

Eben believes Abbie has genuine love for him, Abbie gets the virile young lover she deserves, and they still get to live comfortably in the big house with Ephraim none the wiser. The loathing and betrayal make the lovemaking all the hotter. Abbie gives birth to a son that Ephraim never suspects is not is own, going so far as to celebrate the birth by informing Eben that any inheritance he may have received has been transferred to the new baby and strongly suggesting Eben join Simeon and Peter in California – seek fortune and birthright like a real man should. Someone newer and hotter comes along, the old gets replaced, even when the “old” is not so old. ‘Tis the way of the world.

But it’s complicated; Eben and Abbie have truly fallen for one another – money and land are merely icing on the cake layered in hatred, lust, privilege and questionable parentage. The lovers have gone too far, both cry out in solitude and lash out at one another, needing to get it back to “the way it was”. In the end, they are culpable in their doom, having forgotten their initial business plan. Eben and Abbie are star-crossed lovers that never come together as “we”, clinging to the solitude of “I” like lichen to stone, changing course only when all is lost to them.

The full cast’s interpretation is exceptional. When Brian Dennehy speaks, the crickets stop to take in his words and reflect; when he bellows, the North Woods grizzlies scatter like roaches under the kitchen lights. He makes Ephraim an intimate for us – a relative that there are no illusions of closeness or humanity; a beast of burden and when the job is done, we move away.

Gugino plays to vulnerable perfection a woman past the prime of her dreams – desperate to get a toehold of safe haven by settling for the vulgarity of one rather than being used up and devoured into chattel servitude of the anonymous many. If you could lick Eben’s eternal loathing and resentment off Schreiber’s skin; you would taste Eben’s vulnerability and longing for human tenderness in his tragic outpouring. McGiver and Sherman poignantly project subtle anger and exuberant release that the guarantee of human survival is contingent upon the accepting when it’s time to move on, and doing so quickly.

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