We read the comments so you don’t have to. In the mass/morass of back-and-forth at the Tribune theater blog, over Chris Jones’s review of the Goodman Theatre’s Desire Under the Elms, there was one contribution from someone who actually studies Eugene O’Neill. Harley Hammerman, proprietor of eoneill.com, had this to say:
I thought that Robert Falls production was a failure on so many fronts, I don’t know where to begin.
Falls replaced O’Neill’s hanging elms with hanging boulders. The elms represented the femininity that was Eben’s mother – they were her hanging breasts. They were a part of the beauty of the landscape that was the farm that Eben’s mother had owned and that Eben coveted. Falls did away with all of this beauty, and replaced it with a hard, ugly (boulder) landscape. His landscape was the hard landscape of Ephraim Cabot, not the beautiful landscape of Eben’s mother, and it was impossible to understand why Eben would desire it. O’Neill’s farm drew his characters to it – they all wanted to possess it. It was difficult to understand why anyone would want the rocky landscape that Falls presented us with.
The other major failing was the compression of the action – and the dialogue – from three acts to one. O’Neill hated when anyone cut things from his plays, and Falls showed us why. Falls presented us with such an abridged version, that his characters became caricatures. Instead of developing the relationship between Eben and Abbie, Falls hit us over the head with it. None of the characters felt real, including Dennehy’s portrayal of Ephraim. There wasn’t enough time to develop them into real characters, and still move the plot along at the pace that Falls had chosen. And because Abbie’s love for Eben wasn’t allowed to develop, when she killed her baby, it became more an act of a deranged woman than an act of love. It didn’t work.
What else? The long interlude of Bob Dylan music was incongruous and distracting. Falls had little enough time for dialogue. He could have better used this time to develop his characters, as opposed to having us watch Gugino hang laundry and Schreiber show us his derriere.
Falls gave us more, when he should have given us less, and he gave us less, when he should have given us more. This production does NOT deserve to go to Broadway.