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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. VIII, No. 1
Spring, 1984



4. DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS, directed by Terry Schreiber. Roundabout Theatre Company (Stage One), New York City, March 20 - June 3, 1984.

The Roundabout Theatre Company, one of Manhattan's most reliable resuscitators of dramatic classics, has again earned the gratitude of O'Neillians by mounting, a season after its well-received Ah, Wilderness!, a creditable production of Desire Under the Elms. Since I attended an early preview, when the actors were still exploring and growing into their roles, this is more a report than an official review. (The critics' opening was subsequently postponed, for unspecified "technical" reasons, and I don't know if it ever occurred, since no review has surfaced in the Times, which is a shame.) While the production said nothing new about life in O'Neill's New Englandized Troezen, the text was faithfully served; and while there were problems--one major, one minor--that only substantial directorial changes could remedy, the three leads seemed right for their parts, and the set's major element, a revolving farmhouse, was spectacularly effective.

Thanks to scenic designer Michael Sharp, the high, wide Roundabout stage was handsomely evocative of mid-nineteenth century New England. Sharp's set showed, as the current Broadway Moon did not, that the real and the unreal can be blended harmoniously. There was real dirt, for instance, real-looking stones, and a gate that could well have been salvaged from an abandoned farmyard. Less real were the perennially troublesome elms, which were here "suggested" by shadowy projections on the Cabot homestead and, along with low, fleecy clouds, on the rear cyclorama. But the glory of the set--of the production, in fact--was the two-story farmhouse that dominated the front of the stage at the audience's left. Here too, real and unreal were wedded--not just because it twirled, but because the exterior was little more than a skeletal suggestion (plain horizontal boards, clearly new, with gaps between them and holes where the doors and windows would be), while the rooms within had the cluttered, lived-in look of reality. (It is suggestive of Sharp's success that no one thought till long after the show was over that this was not a house one would want to winter in! Awe at the achievement abetted the suspension of disbelief.)

Only the exterior was visible at the start and during outdoor scenes. For most of the indoor episodes, we saw--as in the accompanying photograph--the first-floor kitchen, a staircase at its rear, and the two bedrooms above. Later, an additional turn revealed the parlor, where subdued music by Philip Campanella and blue evening light shining through the gaps in the outside wall provided just the right atmosphere for Eben and Abbie's moment of rapprochement. (Doubly right in terms of the light, which cast prophetic prison-like bars that also subtly qualified the scene's aura of liberation from the pressure of the past. The spirit of Eben's mother was clearly present; and when the blue light gave way to dawn, we felt that her ghost could, as Eben says, "rest now an' sleep content." (Robert Strohmeier's lighting design was similarly fine through-out the performance, and the parlor scene was the best I've witnessed.)

The principals worked well together, though when I attended, they seemed to lack the full assurance that only time can provide. Still, this made for an effective ensemble performance, no one trying to outshine or overshadow the others. Lee Richardson, as Ephraim, made up in sonorous voice for what he lacked in towering stature. Bearded, black-clad and every inch the old-school patriarch, he revealed the pathetic vulnerability behind Ephraim's blustery facade, and his "Purty good--fur yew!" when Eben opts to share Abbie's fate, caught perfectly the "grudging admiration" with which O'Neill says it is delivered--a touching moment of paternal benediction that many Ephraims overlook, and a moving coda to the violent father-son altercations that preceded it. Kathy Whitton Baker was smaller and younger than the usual Abbie, and her arsenal of emotions was inadequate for the most passionate moments--before the murder and at the end (a nice surface reading of the lines, with insufficient feeling behind them)--but she caught well the transitions from hard schemer to provocative seductress to sincere lover, and her pleas for Eben's love after the murder (in the parlor, in this production) were soulfully delivered and earned a pity that evaporated when she walked off at play's end more mechanically resigned than exultant. Lenny Von Dohlen, blessed with exactly the "defiant dark eyes" that the playwright prescribes, earned the most sympathy of all, despite the petulance and surly cynicism of his early scenes with his brothers, because his later moments of pain, anguish, love and self-abnegation seemed the most real. I hope to see him try others of O'Neill's sensitive protagonists; he is a performer to watch.

Simeon (Tom Spiller), Abbie (Kathy Whitton Baker), Peter (Patrick Meyers), Ephraim (Lee Richardson), Eben (Lenny Von Dohlen) Photo (c) by Martha Swope

Of the production's two problems, the major one arose from director Terry Schreiber's decision, doubtless necessitated by the small cast of five, to play the central party scene behind the exterior of the house, and to suggest it by fiddle music, the sounds of clapping and laughter, and the periodic appearance of Ephraim and others, whirling out from behind the house and then reeling back in again. This cut the action to almost nothing, moved it far from the audience, left the stage virtually empty, robbed the play of an important visual and tonal contrast, and drained all the force and accompanying irony from the little that remained of Ephraim's grotesque dance of dionysian abandon. The minor problem involved Eben's surly siblings. Tom Spiller and Patrick Meyers were appropriately unlikable as Simeon and Peter, but they seemed determined to strip their characters of all the marvelous comedy with which O'Neill had invested them, and un
fortunately they succeeded. This can't have been the result of bad casting; it must have been the decision of the director, and, like the cutting of most of the party scene, it removed much of the play's leavening revelry and left it tonally monochromatic.

Fortunately Schreiber provided much physical business to make up for what he had removed: falls, fights (at one point Ephraim comes close to strangling Eben), and a dance of liberation for Simeon and Peter around a bewildered Ephraim that allows the sons the kind of manic grotesquerie that is later denied their father! All in all, errors notwithstanding, Schreiber provided audiences with a clear picture of the troubles in the family Cabot, and Sharp contributed a farmhouse that will long continue revolving in the viewer's memory.

--Frederick C. Wilkins



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