In its truncated season due to the pandemic, the Shaw Festival has squeezed in a production of Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms. The Festival has shown remarkable restraint in its production of O’Neill’s plays having staged only three prior to Desire and all of them in the 21st century.
The production is directed by Tim Carroll, the Festival’s Artistic Director and the man responsible for choosing the play. The choice may be defensible but one is loath to find many positive things to say about the production. It is staged in the small Jackie Maxwell Studio and is done in a theatre-in-the-round style. There are plays that can be done in such a setting but Desire does not seem to be one of them. The set consists of (elm?) boards covering the stage floor with windows, a door and removable boards for a secret compartment cut on them.
Desire is an awkward drama and the set of this production makes it look even more awkward than it is. There are scenes in the kitchen, the porch, the bedrooms, the parlor in the Cabot farmhouse in 1850 New England and you are left on your own trying to figure out where you are. The set is designed bu Judith Bowden. The director and the designer have no obligation to follow the author’s directions which in O’Neill’s case are ridiculously detailed. The branches of the two elm trees, for example, looking like sagging breasts is a bit over the top.
Once we get a good view of the set, we meet the Cabot brothers: Simeon (Kristopher Bowman), Peter (Martin Happer) and Eben (Jonathan Sousa). The opening dialogue is is spoken or interrupted with pauses after almost very laconic phrase. They manage to sound like linguistically developing Neanderthals. Eben is a little better and we can classify him as pre-Homo Sapiens.
Ephraim, the father, (Tom McCamus) enters and he is Super Neanderthal who expresses his hatred of his sons among less elevated subjects in a stentorian manner that is so full of venom as to be incomprehensible. The two sons from Ephraim’s first marriage hate their father for the dreadful treatment they have received from him whereas Eben, the son of his second marriage, hates him for working his mother to death.
Desire Under the Elms is a reworking of the Greek myth of Hippolytus and Phaedra. The myth has many variations but in its basic outline it tells the story of Phaedra, the wife of Theseus, who developed a sexual passion for Hippolytus, Theseus’s son from a previous marriage. The pure-minded Hippolytus rejected her advances and she took revenge on him by telling her husband that Hippolytus had raped her or fallen in love with her. Fearful of being discovered, Phaedra committed suicide. The furious Theseus prayed to Poseidon to punish Hippolytus and the latter is drowned while riding his chariot by the sea.
The myth and O’Neill’s play provide all kinds of opportunities for examining passion and self-control, natural instincts and moral constraints, lust, lust for land, faith in God and family dynamics. Unfortunately, this production did not lead one to such flights of analysis.
Carroll has assembled a talented cast but their performances do little to raise the play above drudgery. Tom McCamus is a superb actor but as the odious Ephraim he leaves one cold. There is a scene where he tells Abbie (Julia Course), his new, young wife about his hard life, loneliness and the death of his first two wives. Abbie falls asleep during his ramble and the audience’s response is not much better.
Abbie is attracted to Eben and we agree that Julia Couse in the role is indeed attractive. Eben is seriously conflicted what with his love of Abbie, his adoration of his dead mother and hatred of his father. The plot proceeds with twists and turns with Abbie having Eben’s baby, Ephraim believing it is his and the fight over who may get the farm results with the murder of the baby.
By then you don’t give a fig about anyone and could not care less about who gets the farm. It’s not easy to humanize O’Neill’s play and its characters. But this production makes everything worse.
A dreary afternoon at the theatre.
Desire Under the Elms by Eugene O’Neill continues until December 12, 2021, at the Jackie Maxwell Studio, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.