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The Goodman Theatre's Production of "Desire Under the Elms" at the St. James Theatre
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The Goodman Theatre's Production of "Desire Under the Elms" at the St. James Theatre

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Jeffrey Richards, Jerry Frankel, Steve Traxler,
Et al. Present:

The Goodman Theatre production of
Desire Under the Elms
By Eugene O’Neill
(Eugene O’Neill Bio)
(Goodman Theatre Website)

St. James Theatre
246 West 44th Street

Brian Dennehy, Carla Gugino, Pablo Schreiber
Boris McGiver and Daniel Stewart Sherman

Directed by Robert Falls
Scenic Design: Walt Spangler
Costume Design: Ana Kizmanic
Lighting Design: Michael Philippi
Original Music and Sound Design: Richard Woodbury
Casting: Telsey + Company
Wig Design: Charles G. Lapointe
Production Stage Manager: Robert Bennett
General Manager: Richards/Climan, Inc.
Technical Supervisor: Larry Morley
Press Representative: Jeffrey Richards Associates
Company Manager: Jodie Gabler
Associate Producer: Broadway Across America

Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
May 20, 2009

Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms, with Brian Dennehy, Carla Gugino, and Pablo Schreiber, is set in an 1850 New England Farmhouse, and don’t think bucolic. This intermission-less, eerie production has been staged and directed (by Robert Falls) to maximize the characters’ angst-driven neediness and unadulterated lust, with facial and body language that could grip even those in the rear balcony, as space becomes palpable and silence becomes smothering, literally. Ephraim Cabot (the sturdy, seasoned Brian Dennehy) has arrived at his craggy, all male-inhabited family farmhouse with a porcelain, young bride (Carla Gugino as Abbie Putnam). We have just witnessed two of Ephraim’s sons (Daniel Stewart Sherman as Simeon Cabot and Boris McGiver as Peter Cabot) graphically gut a pig, and their subsequent indoor dining habits are also beyond coarse and crude. This is one rough and primal bunch. The primal instinct is strongest in the third son (Pablo Schreiber as Eben Cabot), who is set to inherit the farm. That is, before Abbie joined the “family”. Simeon and Peter were almost off to the California Gold Rush, and Eben harbored plans for his future on this land. Abbie harbored plans for her own future on this land, and the first conflict unfolds.

To drive the seething dramatic intensity, Abbie and Eben become enemies and lovers at once, with primal sensuality overcoming reason. Abbie promises Ephraim a son, if she can win the farm as her reward, and then Eben and Abbie’s affair serves as the catalyst for her pregnancy. Ephraim assumes her son is his, and no New England farm is large enough for this threesome. Madness, tragedy, guilt, and retribution fuse with omnipresent greed and desire, and Robert Falls spares the audience little, in terms of hope for these wretched mortals. Pablo Schreiber and Carla Gugino could spark a dry log with their mutual fire, directed toward and against each other, from dueling sides of their souls. When Abbie first touches Eben’s bare torso, their dizziness disintegrates their minds, before our eyes. Property ownership and Ephraim (Abbie’s husband and Eben’s father) are light years away, when eroticism overcomes thought. Brian Dennehy evokes the proud, muscular New England farmer, but it’s obvious that his deceased wife, whom he may have driven to death through tireless chores and loveless nights, left a void in his world. That void was even larger in Eben’s world, but Abbie is much too vernal and pubescent to take Eben into her spiritual womb. When Mr. Dennehy learns that his son has fathered his wife’s child, his posture and facial muscles evoke the demonic visage of Greek mythology.

Walt Spangler’s spartan farmstead kitchen and mountainous surrounding add strength and surreal space to this already surreal production. No elms grow here. Ana Kuzmanic’s equally spare costuming allows for Abbie’s figure to flow and Eben’s muscularity to bristle, while Ephraim’s suspenders epitomize the essence of this man of the land. Michael Philippi’s dim lighting with glowing highlights brings dimension to the drama, and Richard Woodbury’s music and sound add precise atonality, figuratively and literally. Desire Under the Elms exhausts the viewer, with its own emotional neediness and theatrically riveting characters, but O’Neill’s oeuvre’s intent and potential are realized with this superb and seasoned cast. Kudos to Mr. Dennehy, Ms. Gugino, Mr. Schreiber, and Director, Robert Falls.

Carla Gugino and Pablo Schreiber
in Eugene O'Neill's "Desire Under the Elms"
Courtesy of Liz Lauren

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For more information, contact Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower at