"Mourning Becomes Electra"reminds me of some great piece of dark oak furniture inherited from a favorite relative. It's rich, filled with meaning, beautifully crafted, and doesn't really fit in with the rest of the modern decor. Too important to put into storage, too distinctive to ignore.
Eugene O'Neill wanted his tale of a driven and self-destructive family to have both the structure and stature of Greek tragedy. He also wanted it to appeal to a popular audience newly attuned to the insights of Freud, and to serious questions of social morality and personal responsibility. Director Gordon Edelstein has shortened the original six hour behemoth to a tight, entirely convincing three hours. The consistently solid cast, led by the estimable Jane Alexander, gives a well modulated, clearly articulated performance. The physical production is equally spare and emphatic, and the final result is a big, deep drama that doesn't feel ponderous or reverential. Mr. Edelstein nods to the contemporary, while keeping us constantly in touch with an earlier world, where the themes and incidents of the play were much more shocking, much more forbidden. It's a story of huge events in a small, airless place, and of terrible breeches of the moral order taking place within pitiably small people.
Watching the Mannons destroy one another, their family and its history, as well as themselves individually, we may have some trouble swallowing the melodrama, but O'Neill never lets us forget that it's also great drama. Jane Alexander has such deep mastery of the stage that her performance as Christine immediately becomes the anchor for the entire production. There is such precision in her smallest move, in the scale of her emotion, in the depth of her experience, that it elevates everyone else on stage. If that is so, then Mireille Enos, as the daughter Lavinia, is the greatest beneficiary. The role is much larger and more important to the play than Christine's, and in this production it is brilliantly realized. Ms. Enos begins with such brittle control that one immediately knows it can only be shattered. The evening takes her through intrigue, betrayal, murder, lust, guilt, emancipation and despair. I was astonished by this remarkable actress and her range, discipline and expression. For me, this was the living heart of the play, and its every beat was vital and true.
The battle-damaged son Orin is well charted by Steven Sutcliffe, and in his wounds and weaknesses one feels a great and sympathetic loss. His misguided love, and his inability to ever really feel loved, stay clear of being pathetic while still remaining touching and human.
The small character of the gardener, subtly played by Clayton Corzatte, carries a dear and evocative lyricism thanks to the integration of his plain tunes and manner with the stunning sound design and original music by John Gromada. The shifting walls and doors of the set design by Andrew Jackness are as gray, lifeless and unforgiving as the family itself, and Jennifer Tipton adds both vitality and sobriety with her excellent lighting design.
This is Gordon Edelstein's final production as Artistic Director of Seattle's ACT Theatre. "Mourning Becomes Electra" will travel with him as his first production when he takes over as Artistic Director at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut. It is a triumphant departure, a wistful token of how much we are losing, and a sweet reminder of what is possible when new talent empowers classic work.
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