Play: Desire Under the Elms
Group: Muddy Waters Theatre
Venue: Kranzberg Arts Center, Big Brothers Big Sisters Building, 501 North Grand
Dates: March 19, 20, 21, 26, 27, 28
Tickets: $20-$25; contact 314-799-8399 or www.muddywaterstheatre.com
Story: Life is hard and lonely for the Cabot family on their New England farm in 1850. Patriarch Ephraim tenaciously holds onto the land he has tilled for half a century, demanding the assistance of his three sons while only begrudgingly giving them their due. When Ephraim disappears for a patch with nary a word to his offspring, youngest son Eben (by his second wife) offers to buy the shares of his stepbrothers in the estate he believes is rightfully his, paying with money he steals from their father. Accepting the bid, older sons Simeon and Peter head west to search for gold in California.
When Ephraim returns, he is with a new and beautiful bride, Abbie, who is barely half his age. Having lived a harsh and difficult life, Abbie leaps at the chance to marry into a family with a home and a means for a living, even if it means settling down with a man in whom she has no interest. When she sets eyes on Eben, though, her passions awaken and sow the seeds for illicit love and its ominous consequences.
Highlights: Muddy Waters Theatre devotes each season to the works of a single playwright. This year’s focus is Eugene O’Neill, a titan of 20th century American drama, including a production of his epic work, Long Day’s Journey into Night as well as a little-known early effort titled Now I Ask You. The season’s premiere effort is this three-act drama that featured Walter Huston in its Broadway opening in 1924 and Brian Dennehy in a 2009 revival as the headstrong patriarch Ephraim.
While paring its version down to two acts that take place in a tidy two hours, director Jerry McAdams fills the Muddy Waters interpretation with a bevy of marvelous performances, anchored by a remarkable turn by Jim Anthony as Ephraim. The imposing Anthony is by turns menacing, oafish, dull, scary and cruel as the swaggering and simple-minded farmer, who covets his land more than any of his wives or his sons, emphasizing throughout the “lonesomeness” he cannot quench. Portaying Ephraim as God-fearing more from tradition than thought, Anthony still is able to generate a degree of compassion for the character, like the victim in a Greek tragedy this resembles.
Other Info: Additional fine performances are etched by Patty Ulrich as Abbie and Franklin Killian as Eben. Ulrich is adept at stirring passions as the voluptuous young woman who accepts the elderly Ephraim’s wedding proposal for economic security, then realizes an attractive side benefit when she meets his handsome young son. Unable to control her desires, she ensnares the brooding Eben, here portrayed in top-notch fashion by Killian, who conveys both the young man’s resentment over his late mother’s treatment as well as his own yearning for property he believes is his entitlement.
Ben Ritchie and Chris Jones offer a humorous and entertaining introduction to the Cabot clan in an early scene as the good-natured if unspectacular older brothers Simeon and Peter, while Laura Sexauer and Ryan Spearman provide entertaining period music on fiddle and guitar, respectively. Charlie Heuvelman has a small part as the town sheriff who visits the Cabot farm with several townsfolk for a party to celebrate the birth of the fourth Cabot son, whose birth leads to tragic consequences.
Sean Savoie’s set adequately depicts the hard lives of the pioneer folks, with some simple beds and a steady diet of bread and beans, all starkly shown under Jonathan Lebovic’s lighting. JC Krajicek’s costumes clearly convey the working togs of the boys as well as the simple garb of the musicians and the ‘Sunday finery’ of Ephraim and Abbie back from their wedding.
This truncated version of O’Neill’s drama, while handsomely mounted by McAdams and generally well paced, seems almost too rushed in its race for the inevitable conclusion in the brisk second act. Still, it’s a nice start to what promises to be an appealing season devoted to one of America’s profound playwrights.
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.