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Rocks and Hard Places

Robert Falls puts a treeless twist on Desire Under the Elms.

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In The Long Voyage Home, one of Eugene O'Neill's early sea plays, a hard-luck Swedish sailor named Olson tells a prostitute, in broken English, "I want to go home this time. I feel homesick for farm and to see my people again. Just like little boy, I feel homesick."

A quick sojourn at the Cabot farm, scene of O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms, would probably cure Olson of his nostalgia for things bucolic—especially as it's depicted in Robert Falls's boldly conceived production, the centerpiece of the Goodman Theatre's three-month festival, "A Global Exploration: Eugene O'Neill in the 21st Century."

O'Neill's first major tragedy, Desire Under the Elms usually attracts comparisons to Euripides's Hippolytus because of the premise (a young wife's passion for her much older husband's son). But Sisyphus seems the more apt classical allusion here. O'Neill's original stage directions call for "two enormous elms" on each side of the Cabot family's mid-19th-century New England home, with "a sinister maternity in their aspect, a crushing, jealous absorption." Instead, Walt Spangler's set features rocks—lots and lots of rocks. They surround the periphery of the stage, forming their own amorphous and threatening presence. They hang from thick ropes overhead, as does the farmhouse itself. Michael Philippi's sickly green lighting design filters through a scrim at the rear of the stage, behind which are yet more rocks, hanging in watery shadows. It feels very much like being stuck at the bottom of the sea.

As the play begins, Simeon and Peter Cabot (Daniel Stewart Sherman and Boris McGiver), the oxlike elder sons of parsimonious old coot Ephraim, haul an impossibly heavy sledge filled with boulders center stage, adding more stones to the wall surrounding a platform on which stands, thronelike, their father's bed. Peter bitterly observes, "Here—it's stones atop o' the ground—stones atop o' stones—makin' stone walls—year atop o' year—him 'n' yew 'n' me 'n' then Eben—makin' stone walls fur him to fence us in!" But Simeon and Peter (whose names echo that of Simon Peter, the "rock" of the early Christian church) manage to break away, heading out in search of not spiritual truth but California gold—and leaving their youngest brother, Eben, trapped behind the flinty walls of the old man's domestic prison.

Though the love triangle between Eben, Ephraim, and Ephraim's beautiful but scheming third wife, Abbie, forms the basis of the play's conflict, the real battle is between hard and soft—the same essential American opposition Tennessee Williams would embody decades later in Stanley Kowalski and Blanche DuBois of A Streetcar Named Desire. Ephraim believes that Eben, the product of his second marriage, takes after his late mother, a woman he scorns for her softness (and whom he worked to death after stealing the farm from her, according to Eben). But Eben's half brothers believe he's the "spittin' image" of his father—"hard and bitter as a hickory tree"—and, as they head out for California, they predict that "dog'll eat dog" in the primal contest between Ephraim and Eben.

In Pablo Schreiber's tensile performance, Eben is a young man almost visibly torn apart by his conflicting desires for vengeance against his father and the consolations of soft—if malign—maternal comfort. Schreiber is tall and thin (though a brief nude scene also reveals a sculpted, rock-hard physique), but his face has a birdlike, nervous twitchiness suitable for Eben's suspicious watchfulness. The scene in which he and Carla Gugino's Abbie finally consummate their love/hate passion finds a perfect visual counterbalance in Falls's staging. The farmhouse descends halfway, caught between rocky earth and misty sky, and the parlor that has been closed off since Eben's dead mother was laid out there is opened. As the house sways back and forth like an oversize metronome, Schreiber's Eben crawls into Abbie's lap, sobbing and finally unable to control his lust for the woman he both blames for stealing his birthright and loves for the color, beauty, and fire she brings to his cold life.

But the fire in Falls's production tends to remain at an intellectual remove from the unbridled passion in O'Neill's script. That's partly because those gorgeous, horrifying rock formations that so clearly underscore the harshness and immutability of life on Ephraim's farm also tend to overwhelm the humans onstage. Brian Dennehy—in the latest of an awe-inspiring series of titanic roles under Falls's direction—has both the stony visage and surprising strength Ephraim requires. When he lunges at Eben and holds him down in a headlock, we have no doubt that he could rip his son's head off with his bare hands if so inclined.

But on the page there's also a slow disintegration in Ephraim, who begins to prefer the company of cows to that of humans as the play unfolds. That's not quite present yet in Dennehy's performance. His hardness should be revealed at play's end to be a brittle carapace covering his sense of loss and isolation. Instead, we see Dennehy struggling with the same sledge Simeon and Peter dragged at the beginning—Father Courage determined to keep on building. It doesn't exactly ennoble Ephraim, but it does tend to make him the central character, rather than the lovers.

Gugino—who makes her first appearance in an anachronistic red cocktail dressand purple heels—is drop-dead gorgeous,seductive without being cartoonish. Butthere are times when she, too, seems to besearching for that defining note. Abbie, likeEben, longs to escape a life of abuse and overwork, and Gugino is at her best when she'sexposing the character's fears and needs—as in the consummation scene, or during a passage of anguished denial toward the end of the play. But the harder, more nakedly acquisitive aspects of Abbie—her "crushing, jealous absorption"—are mostly unconvincing. (The exception is a wordless moment when, upon first entering Ephraim's house, she stretches her upper body out over the kitchen table in an attitude of perfect proprietary confidence.) One suspects that her performance, and Dennehy's, will find additional nuances over the run.

This Desire Under the Elms is explicitly modeled for a 21st-century audience, desensitized by Nancy Grace-style sensationalism and therefore unlikely to be fazed by the atrocity Abbie commits to maintain her position. So perhaps it makes sense for Falls to focus on overarching metaphors rather than human frailties. Like Olson, we all want the security of home, but reality can crush our domestic illusions like grain between grindstones. The play leaves us to ponder just where we fall on the spectrum between stony self-preservation and the dangers of unbridled emotional vulnerability.v

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