Desire Under the Elms | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Desire Under the Elms

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DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS, Touchstone Theatre. The elms are missing in Touchstone Theatre's well-wrought revival--but not the desire. Eugene O'Neill's 1924 barn burner seethes with elemental emotions: lust for land, for power, and for another's body and soul. If it seems larger than life, that's because life has shrunk.

The setting--a farmhouse in stony 1850 New England--has hardened the Cabots, whose lives are disrupted when Ephraim, the septuagenarian patriarch, brings home a wife half his age, Abbie, to bear his heir (and cut out his sons). Sick of working for others, Abbie wants to own something that outlasts love. But Ephraim's youngest son Eben fights for his dead mother's farm, and his oedipal desire to avenge his mother and replace his father triggers multiple calamities. Out of this power struggle an equally hard passion emerges, almost enough to make sense of the tragedy.

Jonathan Wilson's full-throttle staging of Desire Under the Elms artfully avoids O'Neill's potboiling excesses. Roderick Peeples is a biblical patriarch to scorch the pebbly earth, a flinty, haunting Ephraim: a role that's twice his age, though just his measure. An ardent, doomed Eben, Christopher Scheithe seems to get bigger as his character grows. Mary Lisa Brennan superbly contrasts Abbie's land lust with her utterly unforeseen passion for the man she means to supplant.

Playing her own score, fiddler Dawn Bach provides warm onstage accompaniment, the sole sweetener for this bitter treasure. Kevin Snow's bare-bones set and Patricia Hart's constricting costumes underline the play's irony: that this deeply desired farm is a spacious prison.

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