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Towering Tragedies

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Desire Under the Elms
Court Theatre

A Moon for the Misbegotten
Goodman Theatre

"Lady, I don't care what kind of prize he's won, he can't put on a dirty show in my town." That was the edict laid down by Detroit police censor Charles Snyder to a Theatre Guild representative in 1947 in regard to a new play the Guild was presenting there in a pre-Broadway tryout. The "he" was Eugene O'Neill, and the prize he'd won was the Nobel (awarded to him for literature in 1936--the first time the honor had ever been bestowed on a playwright). The "dirty show" was A Moon for the Misbegotten, which would prove to be O'Neill's last finished play--and one of his greatest.

Snyder's wrath seems ridiculous now: this poetic, elegiac tragedy is as deeply moral as any minister could want, its main theme a wayward sinner's spiritual redemption. But O'Neill, by then nearly 60, was all too familiar with censorious excess. His Desire Under the Elms, a hit off and on Broadway in the mid-1920s, was a famous example of official outrage backfiring: the New York district attorney's efforts to close it on grounds of obscenity only made it more successful at the box office, especially after a special "citizens' play-jury" composed of arts professionals and civic leaders rejected the DA's charges. (Ironically, O'Neill denounced his newly expanded audience as "the low-minded, looking for smut"--but he took their money.)

Laughable though these cases seem, it's not hard to see what roused the wrath of these self-righteous guardians of public taste. A shocker in its day, Desire Under the Elms is still potent stuff--the story of a young woman who marries an old man for his farm, falls in love with his son, seduces the youth and has a baby by him, then murders the infant to prove the depth of her passion for its father. Not exactly new material (after all, O'Neill's source was the ancient Greek myth of Phaedra), but horrifying nonetheless. And the linchpin of A Moon for the Misbegotten is a transgression all the more tragic for being true: the hero, James Tyrone Jr.--a barely disguised portrait of O'Neill's alcoholic older brother, Jamie--is wracked with guilt over having cavorted with a whore aboard the train transporting his mother's dead body from Los Angeles to New York. James's anguished account of the episode, based on Jamie's admission of a similar incident to Eugene, is what prompted the Detroit censor to denounce the play as "a slander on American motherhood." Today our attitudes are different: James's transcontinental debauch might be a sight gag in a film comedy--imagine Adam Sandler screwing a hooker atop his mama's coffin aboard a roaring locomotive--while the incest, adultery, and infanticide of Desire Under the Elms might be perfect fodder for a TV cop show. (I can hear the announcer now: "She slept with her stepson, then killed their love child. An episode you won't want to miss!")

These plays are definitely period pieces, yet nothing in them seems the slightest bit dated. That's due not only to the strength of O'Neill's writing--the stunning way he transforms the coarse, colloquial language of peasants into epic poetry using long, arcing phrases--but to the fact that he wrote uncompromisingly from the heart and the gut. Probing the complexities of human nature and exposing the life force underlying his characters' most sordid or self-destructive actions, he paved the way for brilliant dramatists like Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and Tony Kushner. Yet O'Neill's finest work remains unsurpassed--and arguably unmatched--by his successors'.

Serendipity has brought these two plays to Chicago stages at the same time, allowing audiences to savor this great writer's remarkable richness. Desire Under the Elms is running in a red-hot revival at the Court Theatre, while the Goodman's Broadway-bound staging of Moon, though still jelling, is an insightful, often moving rendition of O'Neill's valedictory work, the "sequel" to his autobiographical masterpiece, Long Day's Journey Into Night.

The two plays are very different in tone, but both are shaped by the same events: the deaths of O'Neill's mother, Ella, in 1922, and of his brother Jamie in 1923. Desire--written in 1924, when O'Neill was in his mid-30s and these losses were still fresh--reveals a mature, accomplished writer young enough to boldly face a future at once promising and perilous. It's a hot-blooded, plot-heavy drama that pulses with burning energy--like the sun, whose capacity for making things "grow bigger and bigger" while enflaming frail humans' passions constitutes one of the script's central motifs. Moon, penned some 20 years later by a hand palsied with Parkinson's, is the work of an aging artist who'd achieved great success yet also endured enormous personal pain--not only physical infirmity but the failure of two marriages and the loss of or estrangement from his children. Despite bursts of rustic humor, it's a ruminative, melancholy work in which virtually nothing happens, nothing more than what happens in a Catholic confessional booth--unless you believe that expressing penitence and receiving absolution can save one's soul.

For all their differences, the two plays are perfect companion pieces. Each focuses on a man who, like Jamie O'Neill, is unable to shake off the grief and guilt he feels over his mother's death, or the festering anger he feels toward the domineering father who made the mother's life a hell. Eben Cabot in Desire and Jim Tyrone in Moon are drawn to women in whom they see their dead mothers' spirits. The women--Abbie Cabot in Desire and Josie Hogan in Moon--want to make these men their lovers in part out of passion and in part as a way to lay claim to their farmland. But the outcomes are as different as, well, the sun and the moon.

Desire, inspired by Euripides' tragedy Hippolytus, begins with the marriage of 76-year-old farmer Ephraim Cabot to the sensual Abbie. An outsider in the Cabots' close-knit community (whose citizens function like a Greek chorus, commenting on the action), Abbie recognizes the hostility between the hard-bitten Ephraim and his sensitive son, Eben, as well as the resentment Eben feels toward her. Seeking to cement her position over Eben in the household, Abbie decides to have a baby, sure that Ephraim will disinherit Eben in favor of the new child. But Abbie desires Eben even as she plots against him; the attraction is mutual, the passion consummated, and the child that Abbie eventually bears is Eben's, though she convinces the old man that he's the father. The deception backfires when Eben learns of Abbie's earlier intention to rob him of his birthright; to prove the depth of her love, Abbie smothers the child in its crib.

O'Neill set his story in 1850 New England, inspired by the unhappy New Hampshire childhood of his friend Robert Edmond Jones, Desire's original director and designer. Walter Dallas--director of Court's production (and artistic director of the Freedom Theatre in Philadelphia, where the show will travel after its engagement here)--has added a dash of racial tension to O'Neill's already boiling pot by resetting the action in 1930s Georgia and making Ephraim a white man prone to marrying African-American women: Ephraim's previous wife was black, as are Eben and Abbie. Of course O'Neill was perfectly capable of writing openly about racial themes: the same year that Desire Under the Elms debuted he wrote All God's Chillun Got Wings, a hotly debated melodrama about a black man married to a white woman that roused the ire of Ku Klux Klansmen and African-American preachers alike. Purists might complain that Dallas has needlessly tampered with O'Neill's original conception (and made small changes in the text, among them having Abbie refer to an offstage whore as a "high yeller Jezebel"). But O'Neill wasn't above such tampering himself: his proposed screen adaptation of Desire Under the Elms (never filmed) turned Abbie into a Hungarian peasant.

I don't know if a mixed marriage would have been likely, let alone legal, in the Depression-era south, but it doesn't really matter: the racial recasting highlights the alienation Eben feels from Ephraim as well as the bond he feels with his dead mother and with Abbie, whom he comes to regard as a spirit sent by his mother as vengeance on his father. More important, the blistering intensity of this grippingly acted production makes interpretive quibbles irrelevant. By the end of the first act--when Caroline Clay's driven Abbie and Donavin Dain Scott's tormented Eben come together in one of the most erotically charged love scenes I've ever seen on a Chicago stage--it doesn't matter whether they're black, white, or polka-dot. And Marco St. John's powerful Ephraim transcends any ethnic identification: he's as timeless a figure as an ancient Greek king or a biblical patriarch--craggy, harsh, hateful, yet strangely heroic in his fierce, flinty individuality and tragic in the isolation it's brought him.

What these three actors bring to their roles is a sense of intense, strangled emotion, a volcanic energy forever threatening to erupt yet never quite achieving release. This savage power (which more than compensates for the hillbilly caricatures of Craig Spidle and Keith Kupferer as Eben's older brothers) makes us recognize that the passions these characters feel and the crimes they commit are as ancient as the race itself--not the black race or the white race but the human race. The design team--Todd Rosenthal (set), Kathy A. Perkins (lights), Andre Harrington (costumes), and Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman (sound)--have effectively evoked the play's new setting with a shrewd use of period elements: the costumes and the country-flavored music are especially superb. But what elevates Court's Desire Under the Elms is the universality it mines from its specificity. This is a stunning play in a sizzling production.

If Desire Under the Elms takes its inspiration from Euripides, A Moon for the Misbegotten is O'Neill's variation on Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus--the tale of a cursed wanderer who achieves spiritual redemption after years of suffering. Jim Tyrone is a raffish Broadway playboy whose reputation as a ladies' man masks the fact that he's a burned-out, impotent alcoholic. When his mother dies, Jim inherits a barren, boulder-strewn farm, rented for decades to Irish immigrant Phil Hogan and his daughter, Josie. She and Jim have casually flirted over the years, with Josie affecting the image of a wanton woman, the stereotypical farmer's daughter who's been plowed more often than the land she lives on. In fact Josie is a virgin, a plain, ungainly, but warmhearted young woman whose sluttish facade barely hides her low self-esteem, revealed when she calls herself "an ugly, overgrown lump."

When Josie thinks that Jim is planning to sell the farm to a rich, snobbish, and--worst of all--English neighbor, she embarks on a scheme to ensnare the heir: she'll get him drunk, toss him into her bed when he's passed out, then make him think he's seduced her and is bound to marry her. She's egged on in this plan by her feisty scalawag of a father, who has his own agenda: he knows Josie adores Jim and thinks this will bring the couple together.

But the love Jim Tyrone craves is of the spirit, not the flesh. Dissipated and desperate, he's a dead being moving through the world the way the moon circles the earth, attached by gravity yet remote from the life that teems there. Only when Josie, the quintessential earth mother, pulls Jim with sexless tenderness to her bosom does he reestablish connection with his own humanity, pouring out his cathartic confession and then falling into a peaceful, healing slumber. Yet by the end of the play his newly acquired sense of well-being has begun to crumble; his physical deterioration is too advanced for one night of warmth to cure. Even without knowing that Jim is a surrogate for O'Neill's brother, Jamie, who died in a sanitarium the year in which the play takes place, we understand that Jim is not long for this world; all the more important, then, that he can take with him Josie's compassionate benediction, bestowed upon him in the play's exquisite final speech.

Unlike the rarely revived Desire Under the Elms, this work is produced fairly regularly--especially since 1973, when a landmark production starring Jason Robards and Colleen Dewhurst premiered here at the old Academy Festival Playhouse in Lake Forest before going on to a triumphant Broadway reception. The Robards-Dewhurst revival won the play the recognition as a classic it deserved and that had eluded it in past productions: though the 1947 Theatre Guild premiere finally did open in Detroit, it never made it to New York, and the play's Broadway debut a decade later had only a short run despite a cast headed by Franchot Tone and Wendy Hiller.

The Goodman's new production, directed by Daniel Sullivan, boasts a distinguished trio of leading players that has yet to coalesce into an organic ensemble. Gabriel Byrne's poignant, pathetic Jim Tyrone is a shattered shell of a man, despite his fleeting flourishes of devil-may-care roguishness, nervous, haunted, and terrified of the intimacy Josie offers. (Watch the subtle way his knees turn inward at any suggestion of romance, an unconscious defense mechanism to hide his shriveled sexuality.) Cherry Jones, a superb actress, is essentially miscast as Josie: though she has the squat peasant's face the character requires, she lacks the larger-than-life physicality O'Neill envisioned, and her voice is too light and high to communicate Josie's elemental power. But Jones's dramatic choices are always original and interesting, and the tenderness and native intelligence she brings to the role are outstanding. British actor Roy Dotrice is just right as the battlesome bantamweight Phil, providing both comic relief and compassionate concern for the couple.

Visual designers Eugene Lee (sets), Pat Collins (lights), and Jane Greenwood (costumes) have produced one of the Goodman's trademark hyperrealistic sets, re-creating on its sprawling stage a ramshackle farm complete with working pump and mud puddle; the set's only flaws are obviously fake boulders rising out of what looks like a papier-mache mound of earth towering over the Hogan hovel: the Court's set, aiming for less verisimilitude, ends up being more evocative. But this flaw is fixable--one more element that needs fine-tuning. This is an engrossing rendition of a remarkable play that, like Desire Under the Elms, affirms the enduring power of O'Neill's explorations into the mysteries of the human heart.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Michael Brosilow/Eric Y. Exit.

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