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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. VIII, No. 3
Winter, 1984



3. DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS, directed by Edward Golden. Rand Theater, Univ. of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA, October 11-20, 1984.

The University of Massachusetts Department of Theater is to be commended for mounting a faithful, briskly paced production of Elms--the liveliest I have seen. Acting, lighting, sound, scenic design and direction combined effectively to convey the impression--certainly appropriate to O'Neill's determinist text--that the play is about freedom and liberation; more specifically, that both are ultimately illusory; that every freedom brings with it a new and different bondage.

Larry N. Lawlor's set and lighting design did much to convert the Rand Theater's deep, lofty, auditorium-wide stage into the smaller, constricting pressure cooker of an elm-dominated homestead that O'Neill envisioned. The upper area was filled with long strips of varyingly draped material of assorted widths, bearing down on the Cabot house and suggesting the foliage prescribed by the author. Granted, there was more muslin than maternity in their omnipresent overhang, and the strings and wisps suspended from them were more redolent of Spanish moss or (more appropriately) weeping willows than of elms. But one did sense the brooding proximity of the arboreal, so important to O'Neill and so seldom captured in less stylized attempts. And the silhouette they provided against the rear cyclorama, which featured the towering shape of Ephraim's beloved barn and glowed with the altering hues of the New England sky, added a visual interest above to complement the passionate conflicts played out below, and to suggest (at least to a recent rereader of Whitman) the relative significance of those passions, and the "filaments" they engender, in the "measureless oceans of space" around them.

Having no photograph of the acting area, I offer below, with apologies to Mr. Lawlor for the inaccuracies of an unskilled hand and an imperfect memory, a view-from-above of the set: the omnipresent rooms, at different levels, of the Cabot farm-house and the space in front of it where outdoor scenes were played. It is to the credit of the designer and the well-trained actors that one accepted the package as real and never questioned its peekaboo wall-lessness.

One of the delights of attending multiple productions of the same work is the mystery of whose play it will turn out to be each time--a question whose answer is frequently determined less by the script than by the balance of power among the major players. (Hamlet, Richard III and Brutus Jones are relatively secure in their preeminence; but Creon and Antigone, like the inhabitants of the Serebryakov and Tyrone estates, must stake their claims anew with each embodiment.) In this instance, the clear winner--in terms of dominance, if not of right--was Ephraim, thanks to the considerable skills of Harry Mahnken, which far outclassed the less seasoned resources of John Campbell Finnegan (Eben) and Danielle DiVecchio (Abbie).

Not that the imbalance destroyed the ensemble. Finnegan, appropriately gauche and lanky, captured perfectly the coiled wire of pent-up rage that drives Eben in the opening scenes. And DiVecchio, effective in conveying the stone-hard greed that motivated Abbie's match with a superannuated spouse, switched convincingly between the provocative wiles she uses on Eben--first stalking him in the kitchen and then seductively luring him on the porch--and the barely concealed contempt with which she rejects Ephraim's every attempt at self-revelation and affection, as when he kneels before her on the porch and calls her his "Rose o' Sharon" (see accompanying photograph). But while the growing warmth between the two was clear in the parlor scene (it was a nice touch to have Eben don his best hat when he comes a'courtin'),
neither reached anything like apotheosis at the end. (Eben's "Fergive me" to Abbie, after his return from the sheriff, was perfunctory at best, with none of the broken sobbing that O'Neill prescribes.) Hence the aforementioned undercutting of any ultimate idealism in this production.

Mahnken, in contrast, conveyed every nuance of the aging patriarch--both the loud, crusty surface and the vulnerable, introspective, less self-reliant man beneath it. When, in his bedroom confessions to his unheeding wife, he explains why he had "growed hard," the very delivery--in a voice husky but soft--showed that the hardness had never become heart-deep. And so Ephraim's success and survival on a rocky-soiled farm seemed far grander than the young lovers' solidarity in death; and his grudging praise of his son--"Purty good--fur yew!"--could here be accepted literally. Purty good--but no more.

The minor roles were well played, especially Simeon and Peter, Rick Martin and David Todd capturing all the latent comedy in the elder brothers' early scenes, though both joined the others in committing two flaws in an otherwise effective handling of O'Neill's New Englandese. "Purty" was uniformly delivered as "pritty," and "Californeea," even when sung, lacks the rollicking allure of "Califor-ni-yeay." The crowd scene was efficiently directed, especially the hand-clapping, foot-stomping accompaniment for Ephraim's wild duel with a fiddler (Craig Eastman) who finally falls to the ground in defeat; and the group's freezing, except for a continuing undercurrent of sibilants, when important dialogue occurs elsewhere. Robert Shakespeare's sound design was unobtrusively evocative, especially in the parlor scene, whose supernatural-natural blend was echoed by metallic whirring (perhaps electronic) and a relentlessly ticking clock as Abbie nervously awaited her gentleman caller.

The original three acts, in accord with current practice, became two, the inter-mission coming after the first scene of Part II. An appropriate break, I thought, following Ephraim's "Pray for [God] to hearken," with husband and wife kneeling at stage-left, and preceding the electrical two-bedroom scene--the only moment when the lack of walls jarred with the author's intent.

All in all, a memorable evening of theatre--much enhanced, I should mention, by the large, eight-page program designed and edited by Doris Abramson. Its combination of illustrations (drawings and period photographs) and commentary (including passages from Van Wyck Brooks, the Gelbs and Normand Berlin) helped to bridge the 134-year gap between a sophisticated contemporary New England audience and the elemental effusions of their fictional forebears.

--Frederick C. Wilkins



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