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SCRUTINY | A Singular Approach To An American Classic In Shaw’s ‘Desire Under The Elms’

By Paula Citron on October 29, 2021

shaw_festival_-_desire_under_the_elms_review
Julia Course as Abbie Putnam and Tom McCamus as Ephraim Cabot in Desire Under the Elms (Shaw Festival, 2021) (Photo: David Cooper)

Shaw Festival/Desire Under the Elms by Eugene O’Neill, directed by Tim Carroll, Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre, Oct. 16 to Dec. 12. Tickets available here.

Remember that old TV country music show called Hee Haw? That’s what the brothers Simeon and Peter Cabot (Kristopher Bowman and Martin Happer) sounded like in the first scene of Desire Under the Elms. They were like stereotypical cornpone yokels to an almost laughable degree.

In fact, dialogue at the beginning of the play was so stylized, so affected, so mannered, while accompanied by such deliberate physical placement, that an entire evening directed in this way would have been excruciating.

Nonetheless, while director Tim Carroll kept a stylized approach overall, he did tone it down enough to allow passions to soar, which brought O’Neill’s gothic tale to its fitting sturm und drang conclusion — almost, that is.

O’Neill, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1936, is credited with establishing the realism of Chekhov, Ibsen and Strindberg in American theatre. In his over 50 works, the prolific playwright also experimented with naturalism and expressionism. In other words, except for a paltry number of his plays, there were no happy endings.

What then, is the magnet of an O’Neill play? In a word, the memorable characters. In the case of Desire Under the Elms (1924), the playwright was inspired by Hippolytus, an ancient Greek play by Euripides. In Euripides’ plot, a stepmother, Phaedra, tries to seduce her chaste stepson Hippolytus, then commits suicide, but leaves a letter accusing the young man of rape, much to the rage of his father Theseus, who engineers the death of his son. (Incidentally, O’Neill also transplanted the Oresteia by Aeschylus to a New England setting in his 1931 trilogy Mourning Becomes Electra.)

While using plot elements from Hippolytus in Desire Under the Elms, O’Neill added a few twists and turns of his own. Set in 1850, Ephraim Cabot (Tom McCamus) brings home a new young wife, Abbie Putnam (Julia Course). Abbie, who has never owned anything in her life, is determined to inherit the farm, which puts her in direct conflict with Ephraim’s son Eben (Johnathan Sousa).

Eben has managed to get his half-brothers, Simeon and Peter, out of the way of the inheritance, by sending them off to the California gold fields using money he has stolen from his father. Abbie, however, is a new and present danger.

Unlike Hippolytus, Eben succumbs to Abbie’s advances and the two carry on their affair right under the nose of Ephraim. Abbie has Eben’s child, which the 75-year-old Ephraim believes is his, but the lovers have a dramatic falling out when Eben accuses Abbie of using him to get a child, which would then secure her inheritance. Things definitely go downhill from there, but to say how would be a spoiler.

What makes O’Neill’s characters so compelling is their burning passions, which drive the plot. They are always true to themselves, even if those passions take then down a terrible road.

The Nobel committee cited O’Neill’s “vital energy, sincerity, and intensity of feeling, stamped by his original conception of tragedy”. And the tragedy in Desire Under the Elms is certainly original, as well as shocking.

As befits an O’Neill play, there are some strong character portrayals.

McCamus seems to have become the go-to actor at Shaw when you need a senior citizen, and his Ephraim gives no quarter when it comes to his three sons, or for that matter, what we learn about his treatment of their mothers. McCamus embodies a character that is selfish, prideful, and hard as New England granite. He is an island unto himself, wearing his Puritan ethic like a badge of honour.

Sousa’s Eben is the complete opposite of his father because he wears his heart on his sleeve. Obsessed about inheriting the land, he is defiant and resentful. He is also mercurial in his moods, and quick to anger, yet he can show tenderness to both Abbie and the child. I could, however, have used a little more of a lustful nature on Sousa’s part.

Course’s first entrance as Abbie is a bit of a shock, with her pretty 1850s dress and pert bonnet. That fragile image is soon dispelled when she starts talking about “her” house, and “her” farm. While she could have oozed more sex and seduction in her encounters with Eben, her final scenes, when she is stripped of everything she holds dear, are superb.

Bowman and Happer begin as clods, but do develop more personality as the scenes develop. You see men hardened by toil who yearn for better things, and that longing comes out when they talk about California. They do exhibit a wry curiosity in learning about their new stepmother, which is an interesting reaction.

Both actors return as neighbours at the party celebrating the birth of the baby, and exhibit just the right tone of irony and innuendo over just who is the father of the baby.

Judith Bowden’s set is perhaps the most unusual feature of the production, and matches Carroll’s stylized approach to direction. The floor of the set is a wooden house that the actors walk on. To peer through windows, they have to kneel down. The door opens to reveal Ephraim’s hiding place for his stash of money. Props are concealed under the floor and are retrieved as needed. There are absolutely no set pieces.

There is a wooden pole in the middle of the set that makes you think of gallows, and the T-cross at the top of the pole is a dead tree. That pole, in fact, is a focal point for the action, as the actors lean on it, sit against it, hide behind it, and so forth. It is a symbol that can be interpreted in many ways. In short, the set is a quite a radical interpretation of O’Neill’s New England.

This production also emphasized music and lighting, and as an audience member, I was very aware of both. Claudio Vena’s original music could be the soundtrack for a Western movie. The repeating theme is like a slow, moody dirge that conveys tragedy and sorrow. Vena has also added agitated passages when tempers flare or passions arc.

Kevin Lamotte’s lighting is very striking because it functions as a guide to where we should be looking. For example, the baby’s crib is indicated by a square of light. At key times, certain windows on the floor are lit, indicating specific rooms where the action is taking place. As well, the entire floor/house can be under-lit, such as at the party scene. The result is lighting that is filled with dramatic effects.

Joyce Padua’s costumes are the most realistic thing about the production, and she seems to have followed O’Neill’s stage directions to the letter. The Cabot brothers are clothed in overalls, boots and checkered shirts that make them look like they just came in from the fields or the barn. Ephraim Cabot is in his black Sunday suit, while Abbie Putnam’s various dresses are absolute period.

Carroll, it seems, ended up directing Desire Under the Elms by default, and I’m guessing that COVID played havoc with the production plans. First Selma Dimitrijevic was announced as director, and then Kimberley Rampersad, and both women are thanked in the program.

As stated before, Carroll opted for a stylized approach. Actors rarely exit, but stand or sit in darkness. Scenes bleed into one another. Because there are no set pieces, the floor/house itself becomes the dominant factor. Everything is exposed, including the actors. The production is an odd combination of symbolism, realism and expressionism.

The proof of the pudding, however, is, do we feel the horror of the tragedy that ensues? Desire Under the Elms is an American classic that features iconic characters. Does Carroll’s approach meet the tragedy bar that O’Neill set? While the production does end strongly, I do feel that the stylized direction did put a bit of a restraint on the actors.

In the final analysis, Desire Under the Elms is a play that does not come our way that often, so any production is something of note. The creative team has taken a very singular approach in both directorial and theatrical values, which may not be that welcome in some markets. Nonetheless, that very singularity has made the production an interesting visit in the best sense of the word.

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Paula Citron
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