Reviewed by Will Stackman
The general moral for tragedy, proposed by Sophocles at the end of "Oedipus Rex" is roughly "Count no man happy until he's dead." America's only Nobel prize winning playwright, Eugene O'Neill, simplified that to "Count no man happy" and pursued mythic tragedy through his long and seemingly painful writing career. "Desire Under the Elms" is generally considered his first great tragedy, overcoming the blatant symbolism of his earlier plays such as "Welded" based on his failed first marriage or before in "All Gods Chillun Got Wings,"with a coherent if not especially accurate historical context. Hungarian film and stage director, Janos Sz_sz, who is associated with the ART/MXAT Institute, previously directed a modern dress overly-atheletic production of "Mother Courage", and highly revised versions of "Marat/Sade" and "Uncle Vanya" for the ART. This time out, O'Neill's folk tragedy has been edited down to a two-hour Absurdist exercise, once again influenced by contemporary theatre practice first instigated by Grotowski in Poland. The result only vaguely resembles O'Neill's saga of the Cabot's and their elm-shaded farm.
Not that the original, influential in its day as part of the Art Theatre movement, could easily be produced as written today, even if some version of the author's staging famously realized by Robert Edmund Jones was revived. O'Neill's 19th century Puritans, transplanted to Vermont so as not to reflect on his Ridgefield Connecticut neighbors where the play was written, conform to popular rural stereotypes. His dialogue, which ventures into vernacular poetry, uses a dialect that owes as much to rube traditions on the American stage as to rural New England patois. O'Neill, the product of an Irish-Catholic theatrical family, was still writing within period confines, while trying to assimilate the taste for Greek tragedy gained during his studies under George Pierce Baker at Harvard and the Freudian influences washing over American intelligentsia in the 1920s. ART dramaturgs Ryan McKittrick and Stella Goblin have worked with Sz_sz trying to find contemporary correlatives, but three-quarters of a century and immense social revolution have made the psychological insights attempted by O'Neill the stuff of daytime drama. The result plays like a bad imitation of Sam Shepard in a context derived from the tradition of "Tobacco Road" (19??) updated to the era of bad-mannered T.V. talk shows.
The patriarch of the Cabot clan, seventy-six year old Ephraim, is played by Off-Broadway veteran Raymond J. Barry, doing his best to rise to the role which brought Canadian Walter Huston out of vaudeville and touring Shakespeare to prominence in his forties on the New York stage. Barry delivers what's left of O'Neill's poetic attempts with conviction, which can't be said most of the time for ART/MXAT student Mickey Solis playing his twenty-something youngest son, Eben, born to his second wife. Solis was more convincing as the unfortunate title character in "Olly's Prison", the ART's effort in April. As Abbie Putnam, Ephraim's third wife and the woman between them, Amelia Campbell, with ample Broadway and Off-Broadway credits, seldom sounds believable speaking the play's diction. She's further hampered by a peculiar iridescent short dress, lace-up boots and knee-pads. The latter are necessary when crawling about on the gravel-strewn set. Costumer Edit Sz Sz_cs' choices for this modern dress version are generally acceptable, if somewhat off-the-rack, but Abbie's get-up was clearly chosen mainly to make stimulated copulation more believable. It's a constant distraction in a production over-stuffed with blatant symbols. Since O'Neill was praised at the time for submerging this tendency in a coherent playscript, the current staging is a step backward.
The two older brothers, from Ephraim's first marriage, are played merely as part of the exposition in grubby farm clothes by Shawtane Bowen and Peter Cambor, also ART/MXAT students. While the play has clearly been updated into the second half of the 20th century at least--there's a rusting pickup truck decorating the set up left--references to the Gold Rush of the 1850's are left unchanged. The ensemble,Richard Gilman, Zofia Goszczynska, Risher Reddick, and Rachel Redpath, who show up for a peculiar dance celebrating the birth of Abbie's child are even less distinguished. Wearing almost suburban dress, these four briefly try their best, backed by sound designer David Remedios' primitive percussion. Adding to the problem is the Absurdist wasteland achieved by another of Riccardo Hernandez' abstract sets. The production's visual attitude towards the original play is clear. The only elms visible are either standing dead or felled.
The famous multi-room house which defined the flow of the action has become a flat floating symbol looming full-sized over the stage. As part of Christopher Akerlind's rather theatrical lighting plot, individual windows can be lit to indicate where a scene, most of which are played down front and center, might be taking place. If the audience notices, this effect is seldom essential. What is evident and over-done are the stones which serve as the production's primary props.A somewhat inspired use of these primitive artifacts occurs when Ephraim stacks up a small tower, somewhat distractingly and for no good reason, which then comes to symbolize Eben's dead mother. This totem is knocked over when the boy lies with Abbie, then become their baby's tomb after she smothers it. Eben rebuilds it during the finale while Abbie walls herself in an imaginary prison to his left using another cluster of small stones. They're both repeating lines heard earlier while Ephraim babbles upstage wandering along the wall which the three brothers were working on during the first scene. And covering a plywood rake with gravel merely creates additional work for the housekeeping staff. The novelty wears off, and requires the afore-mentioned kneepads. There's also no greenery evident on Ephraim's "purty" farm.
O'Neill's plays from the '20s certainly require editing and careful stagecraft to overcome period limitations. Thus they may not be the best raw material for radical modernist staging, except for advertising purposes. Perhaps the ART's dramaturgical staff should consult European counterparts to find auteur/director Sz_sz plays from the Continental tradition relatively unknown in the West for further experimentation, perhaps those by Horvath. This current effort can be classed as another interesting failure at best, essentially wasting talent and resources. Most of the hard-working cast would have been far more convincing in a conventional production set in the author's chosen period. At least this production only runs two hours sans intermission.