American Blues Theatre

American Blues Theatre’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms is its first as an Equity company. The timing is perfect, for the talented veteran actors it has hired, especially Deanna Dunagan, keep this production on course despite the erratic navigation of director William Payne.

Desire Under the Elms, which premiered in 1924, remains a powerful and disturbing drama. It’s often been compared to Greek tragedy, although it seems to me that the Oedipus in this play has more to do with Freud than with Sophocles. The play revolves around Eben, a young man intent on taking sole possession of the farm that his mother bequeathed to his stern Yankee father, a man who supposedly worked his wife to death. Eben has two older stepbrothers by his father’s first marriage (that wife died too), and to get them out of the picture, Eben steals money from their father and buys their claim to the property. He then watches with obvious satisfaction as they set out to make their fortune in the California gold rush.

Just as the two brothers are leaving, Ephraim, their father, returns with his third wife, a lovely young woman named Abbie. She’s married the old man because she wants to inherit the farm herself and achieve some financial security.

By the first intermission, the stage has been set for Eben to kill his father and sleep with his mother–more or less. These early scenes, which O’Neill wrote in a leisurely, casual fashion, are crucial for establishing Eben’s ferocious ambition, his lust, and his simmering resentment against his father.

That is why Payne’s decision to play the first act for laughs almost sinks this production before it gets out of the harbor. The stepbrothers are more than ten years older than Eben; they should be big, strong, formidable rivals. But Payne presents them as cloddish bumpkins, like a white Amos ‘n’ Andy team. Admittedly, O’Neill provides ample material for this interpretation. “I air hungry!” says Simeon, speaking in a sharp New England twang. “I smells bacon!” answers Peter. “Bacon’s good!” Simeon responds. “Bacon’s bacon!” says Peter, as they both scramble through the front door, pushing each other to get to the breakfast table.

But Peter and Simeon have to be fairly shrewd. They’re aware, before the play opens, that their father’s marriage will deprive them of their inheritance (Eben is willing to gamble he can get around that). They are also smart enough to accept Eben’s offer of $300 apiece to scram. By turning them into nothing but oafs, Payne undercuts them as rivals and makes Eben look like the happy owner of two pet monkeys.

So after the first few scenes, all seems lost. Then Dunagan makes her entrance as Abbie, accompanied by Ephraim (Dennis Cockrum, another consistently inventive veteran actor). Together they get the play back on an even keel and somehow manage to restore the production’s tragic momentum.

Payne’s lack of direction remains apparent, however. For example, the townspeople who attend the party celebrating the birth of Abbie’s baby all know that Eben is the father; their function is to laugh at Ephraim behind his back. But Payne apparently mistakes them for a Greek chorus and has them wear ugly translucent masks. The masks are distractingly inappropriate, as if the townspeople have wandered in from some other play.

Payne’s basic problem seems to be a reluctance to keep his eye on the play’s central conflict, the incompatible desires raging within Eben. This young man longs to grow up and take command of his life, but he still submits to his father like a little boy. He longs to be righteous and respectable, but still runs off to see his girlfriend, Minnie (who used to be his father’s girlfriend), whenever he can. He craves his father’s approval, yet wants desperately to humiliate him.

Most of all, he wants to ravish Abbie, his father’s new wife–an unthinkable desire that seems to build in intensity the more he tries to suppress it.

And the desire is mutual. In her performance, Dunagan makes Abbie’s smoldering passion almost palpable. Though older than Eben, Abbie is still young and beautiful–a plausible mate for the young man. And from the moment she sets eyes on Eben, Dunagan makes it clear how much Abbie wants him. Even her eyes seem charged with sexual tension. By the time they finally consummate their passion, in the very room where Eben’s beloved mother was laid out before her burial, the play is crackling with excitement.

Cockrum, who is barely half the age of the character he portrays, still manages to capture the flinty self-righteousness of Eben’s father. His face is as deeply furrowed as the fields he plows, as hard as the stones he must remove from the path of the plow blade. Cockrum is a brilliant comic actor, and at times his portrayal veers perilously close to caricature, but he always manages to pull back, sustaining his portrayal of an old Puritan who is still strong enough to best his youngest son in a violent wrestling match.

Edward Blatchford has the perfect look for his role as Eben. Young and lithe, with a strong jaw and dark, forbidding eyes, he looks the boy/man intent on achieving power. Although his performance is a bit one-dimensional seen next to Dunagan’s, Blatchford’s callowness does enhance our sense of Eben as a withdrawn young man, his emotions held carefully in check.

But despite some good performances, Payne has misjudged the depth of this play. Instead of dredging up the submerged emotions roiling within the characters, he sticks to the surface. Animosity is little more than the type of squabbling found in situation comedies; overwhelming passion is the tawdry melodrama that fuels soap opera. Without actors who can sound out the depths on their own, this production could never have stayed afloat.

Payne did make one inspired choice, however–he brought in a folk quartet of singers and musicians, perched on a platform in a corner of the theater, who serenade the audience with spirituals and other mournful, bluesy numbers. They strike just the right chord, sweetening and unifying a production that has far too many dissonant notes.