Review: Desire Under the Elms.

Comical and tragic plays are easy to get right, but when the play is about loneliness, how does one put it on without lulling the audience to sleep?  How about building up the drama until fate knocks all the lonesome feeling away?  After all, as Ephraim Cabot says, “God’s lonesome, ain’t he?”.  Damaso Rodriguez’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s “Desire Under the Elms” is a slowly undulation chant to loneliness until fate as the cymbal records a loud crescendo on the sad melody.

When the rich farm-owner Ephraim Cabot (William Dennis Hunt) returns home with a new wife, Abbie Putnam (Monette Magrath), his two older sons Peter (Stephen Rockwell) and Simeon (Christopher Fairbanks) decide to leave for the greener pastures of gold digging in California.  The young one, Eben Cabot (Jason Dechert) decides to take up his birthright, the farm, and gives them his father’s gold taken from Eben’s deceased mother.  The new mother is initially hated by Eben, because she wants to claim the farm as her own after aged Ephraim’s death, but when Ephraim fails to impregnate her, she is urged on by her attraction to Eben.  When Abbie gives birth to Eben’s son, the neighbors mock the aged Ephraim, who thinks the child is his, and hence the heir to the farm.

Eben is angry that Abbie had conspired against him, and tells her he wished his son was never born.  Fate strikes as the wounded Abbie decide to kill her own new-born to prove to Eben that she loves him, but upon the baby’s death, Eben turns against her, disgusted by her act, and informs the Sheriff (Dale Sandlin), but once he realizes her love for him is real, he urges her to escape with him.  The law, however, decrees that someone must pay.

Hunt’s performance is one of the highlights of this production.  His Ephraim is old, rugged, proud, and very funny.  He can beat his son in a fight, and even when he realized he was cuckold, he gives off venom to see his wife and son brought to justice.  Perhaps he’s the only one who can be trusted to defeat lonesomeness as he is left to tend the farm on his own at the end.  His demeanour makes his complete blindness to his wife’s affair believable, and he even treats us to a celebratory dance of sorts.

Magrath and Dechert have chemistry together, especially in their conflicting moments, such as when they misconstrue each other about the existence of their child and when Eben suggests that they elope while Abbie insists on “atoning for our sins.”  Their anguish is what drives the play on.  Magrath portrays an Abbie who is not so much a victim but a spirited follower who succumbs to her own heart.

The mood of the play is dark, as almost all O’Neill plays should be, but the musical interludes, especially those involving the Fiddler (Endre Balogh), are eerie, and brings a sense of getting lost in the play.  Most importantly, the play goes into a climax after an hour and a half of slow grappling, until at long last, fates collide, and we are left with astonishment.

“Desire Under the Elms” runs at A Noise Within ( in Pasadena, California, until 18 of December.

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