Desire Under the Elms @ The Goodman


Saturday afternoon I met up with lovely Jamie to catch the matinee of Eugene O’Neill’s 1924 classic play, “Desire Under the Elms” at the Goodman Theatre.

Being completely unfamiliar with “Elms” or O’Neill really made this a unique experience for me. I found this production powerful, engaging and daring.

“Elms” really is an American tragedy. To read a plot synopsis: go here.

Director Robert Falls has tinkered significantly with the play, I gather, to make it resonate with our modern sensibilities (perhaps?). He’s streamlined O’Neill’s text, stripped out the intermission, inserted some cinematic music montages (and a particularly disturbing opening sequence involving the evisceration of a sow), suspended a house over the actors, and set it on a rock farm (underwater?). While some purists might be offended by the liberties Falls took, I really enjoyed it. Aside from being confused for the first 10 minutes or so — mostly due to the accents and the wordy exposition — my attention was captured and held for the entire hour and 45 mins.

One thing that cannot be denied is Fall’s excellent casting. He’s assembled a stunning ensemble of five. Yes, resident O’Neill and Goodman actor Brian Dennehy was a force as Ephraim Cabot. Great performance. But the focus really isn’t on him; it’s between Abbie and Eben.

Pablo Schreiber as Eben Cabot, though hard to understand many times due to his overwrought accent, broke my heart. And he’s not bad to look at, either.

Amy J. Carle filled in for Carla Gugino as Abbie Putnam, who left the production to honor film commitments of some sort. While I’m sure Gugino was great, I couldn’t imagine anyone better than Carle. A robust woman with a deep, husky voice, Carle resonated, drive, desire, lust and anger. She was like a caged animal, intent on getting what she wanted…at any cost. Loved her performance.

Jamie made a great observation about the costumes. Abbie’s outfits gradually shifted from flirty, red fringe-lined slips and heels, to modest, buttoned-up dresses. She (Jamie) noted that perhaps Abbie was wearing Ephraim’s late wife’s outfits — as a means to further insert her claim over the property.

The set was quite impressive, although a tad confusing. Why all the rocks? I’m sure it’s symbolic – rocks are solid and imposing and can crush you and seal you in, etc. I get it. But all the references to “burning down the farm until every last ear of corn is gone.” I don’t see any corn, and if you burn down the farm…you still got rocks? The floating house was cool — but underused. Also, it made me nervous as it swayed back and forth with actors playing below it.

The production is transferring to Broadway’s St. James Theatre (former home of PATTILUPONEGYPSY!) in a few months. I wonder with NYC audiences will think.

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