Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
Fatal Attractions: Desire Under the Elms at A Noise Within
A Noise Within, in its new performance space in Pasadena, has returned to its traditional status as a repertory theater. This weekend it began offering a second show to run concurrently with the “Twelfth Night” which opened the season. The contrast is instant and obvious. Though “Twelfth Night” was overly concept-driven, putting florid flourishes on a play to the point of dulling its original luster, this new exploration of Eugene O’Neill’s minor masterpiece “Desire Under the Elms” lets the characters become the play’s force. Interlaced in director D’amaso Rodriguez’s vision of setting and pace, the show becomes a cohesive whole, and a compelling one.
A portrait of struggle on many levels the play introduces Ephraim Cabot, the hard, aging taskmaster father who has driven two wives to their graves, and three sons into deep and powerful resentment. In his fullness of days he has taken another wife – a young widow desperate to own something and belong somewhere. Two sons desert him for California and a third, who dreams of owning the farm, remains behind. Thus begins a struggle of hearts, as Ephraim’s harshness bumps up against his new wife Abby’s grasping and his son Eben’s aching passions. Ephraim’s self-focus and determined loneliness doom them all.
In some ways the setting is almost a character. The cast’s upper New England accents, and the starkly beautiful world they see from John Iacovelli’s stark and transparent farmhouse define the world in which this wrenching drama unfolds.
William Dennis Hunt’s Ephraim looks like he stepped out of a daguerreotype, and though he plays it all in a pacing and huffing key, the part works as the rock upon which the rest of the story layers. Jason Dechert’s soft and aching Eben contrasts viscerally with Hunt’s toughness. Monette Magrath does well walking the tightrope between making Abby too calculating and not calculating enough, leading to some interesting, if debatable, interpretations of her shift in interest from father to son.
Still, between pacing and sense of ensemble rhythm, this “Desire Under the Elms” proves compelling watching. Even those in smaller parts, particularly Stephen Rockwell and Christopher Fairbanks as Eben’s two cloddish elder brothers heading for the California gold fields, fit in with the rhythm and atmosphere with a deceptive effortlessness.
On a more mundane key, and also in contrast to ANW’s “Twelfth Night,” this language-rich production proves satisfying in that you can hear every word. And here words matter, set in a culture which measured every sentence for economy as they did feed for the stock.
This “Desire Under the Elms” is a good chance to meet one of the finer plays by one of the great playwrights of the 20th century. Before him, we were a provincial theatrical place at best. He brought American theater seriousness, and an undercurrent of Greek tragedy, which Miller and Williams and others would build upon in their turns. As with the Greeks, the flaws of human interaction are inevitable and deadly. Yet, in O’Neill, we find our own roots intertwined with those fatal flaws. It’s an uncomfortable mirror, but an engrossing one.
What: “Desire Under the Elms” When: Through December 18, on selected nights in repertory with “Twelfth Night,” 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: A Noise Within, 3352 W. Foothill Blvd in Pasadena How Much: $42 – $46 Info: (626) 356-3100 ext. 1 or http://www.ANoiseWithin.org