Desire Under the Elms

Written by Eugene O'Neill
Directed by Robert Falls

At the Goodman Theatre in Chicago

A review by M. D. Ball of the performance on January 24, 2009

This review contains spoilers.

There were no elms. There was nothing to "brood oppressively over the house"*, as O'Neill prescribes, unless it be the large stones hanging from long ropes over the stage, as O'Neill doesn't prescribe. Nevertheless, there was plenty o' desire under those missing elms. But more on that later.

Audiences have to face ambiguity. An impression of a performance may come from nothing more than the acting per se, or it may reflect the actor's interpretation of his or her character. Although distinguishing between the two is often easy, it's sometimes quite challenging and, once in a while, even impossible. Goodman Theatre's current production of Eugene O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms hit me with not just one, but two, baffling ambiguities, one starting from indifference and the other from exaggeration.

From his entrance, Brian Dennehy, who played Ephraim Cabot, either was indifferent about his role in this production, or his acting was unimpeachably realistic. Dennehy's every word, visage, and gesture betrayed an underlying acrimony with a singular focus on callousness. And there was an air of detachment that was sometimes phlegmatic and other times fiery. Ephraim's acrid soul, however, burned through Dennehy's performance and seared the atmosphere in the theater. Were I sure that he was in character, my admiration for the man's performance would be effusive. Nevertheless, I have to ask whether we were witnessing a vicarious tirade from an embittered actor or his interpretation of O'Neill's malignant old curmudgeon, Ephraim Cabot.

But Dennehy's was actually my second ambiguity. The first came from Pablo Schreiber in the role of Ephraim's son Eben. Had this character himself not had a combustible temperament, I'd have winced at what would have been Schreiber's dilettante theatrics. His Eben overreacted to everything and then went looking for more reasons to erupt. O'Neill does describe Eben as having a "resentful and defensive" face and a "fierce repressed vitality"*, but these word choices aren't, I believe, merely understatement for indicating a volatile and erratic personality. In the end, one wonders whether Schreiber's exaggeration on stage was a product of amateurish overacting or whether it was the emotional inflation expected of a character who himself exaggerates.

Perhaps my fruitless effort at disambiguation is trying to tell me something. Perhaps what I want to say is that Dennehy and Schreiber were so smooth in their roles that the ambiguity they created testifies to their skill. For example, the finest moment in the play, albeit very brief, was Ephraim's reaction to the baby's murder. Of course, it's never quite certain whether Ephraim loves the baby qua baby, qua heir, or qua symbol of his septuagenarian virility. The power of this moment resides in his failing to answer the question. Dennehy forged an equivocal reaction that would have been wholly believable in any of those three scenarios.

Carla Gugino, who played Abbie Putnam, Ephraim's new wife, captured Abbie's questionable motives and her seriousness of purpose throughout the story. At the end, however, something new appeared. In her reaction to killing the baby, Gugino's Abbie showed too much remorse to be sociopathic but too little to be sincere. Her knowledge of the immorality seemed stronger than her feeling about it. Consequently, as she walked off the stage to face her punishment, on Eben's sympathetic arm, I had the impression of apathia rather than greed, love, or lust.

Re-interpreting a great play, that is, a play that has earned the distinction, is a risky proposition. Much of the symbolism in O'Neill's plays is obscure, unlike Tennessee Williams' works, in which a character can hardly turn a phrase without bumping into a metaphor. In this production, however, the absence of O'Neill's prescribed elms and the interpolation of counter-realistic overhanging stones actually brought out the symbolism in fairly strong relief. Gugino, for example, used a simple gesture to draw a sultry simile among the three phenomena of submission to one's urges, emergence from the womb, and the growth of elm trees.

But what did those perplexing dangling stones represent? Truth be told, it's anyone's educated guess. But what I can say with some confidence is that they didn't dispel the ineffable burden hanging over the Cabots collectively and individually. They didn't eliminate the oppressive brooding that the absent elms would have imposed. And they didn't soften Ephraim's permanently tyrannical heart. Ordinarily, I'd say that chasing symbols is like chasing rainbows, but in this case that would be redundant, ridiculous, or both.

* (1925 edition by Boni & Liveright, Project Gutenberg Australia)