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Theater Review: "Desire Under The Elms" At A Noise Within

Sara Itkis |
December 4, 2011 | 1:04 p.m. PST

Staff Reporter


 Craig Schwartz)
Craig Schwartz)

“Eben” - an unusual name, it is derived from the Hebrew ehven, meaning “stone.” Eben Cabot, the main character in Eugene O’Neill’s "Desire Under the Elms," was raised on a farm that his father had cultivated out of a land of stone. Ephraim, the father, is a man of stone himself. Bent upon survival and success, he lives to work. At the age of 76, he still maintains the farm, while holding a heavy influence over his youngest son. Raised in this world of stone and hardness, Eben (Jason Dechert) at first seems to be equally hard-hearted. Determined to inherit the farm which he considers rightfully his, since Ephraim had obtained it through Eben’s mother, he waits and waits for the opportunity to take back what is his.

Meanwhile, Ephraim (William Dennis Hunt) marries a younger woman, Abbie (Monette Magrath), and Eben despairs that she will inherit the farm instead. He soon finds out that Abbie is as hard as he is, and just as bent upon owning the farm when Ephraim dies (which he by no means seems to be about to do). Having struggled her whole life while depending on others, Abbie is determined to finally have her own house and property, and she is ready to do whatever it takes to secure it. This hell-bent trio collide in what is at first a fierce battle of the wills. However, as sexual tension between Abbie and Eben rises, their stone natures soften, and seduction, passion and love takes hold.

Produced by the classical repertory company A Noise Within, Eugene O’Neill’s “Desire Under the Elms” is set in a charming theater, where no seats feel too far from the stage. As the audience takes their seats, an atmosphere of a wistful summer evening in the Midwest washes over them. The rustic house in which the drama unfolds, the wooden porch, complete with rocking chair and dead leaves, and the western violin playing between scenes all help to create the mood. The cast, led by Dechert, Hunt, and Magrath are all wonderful, western accents and all.

Being a Eugene O’Neill family melodrama, the essence of the play is within the intense, profound emotions that are buried within the familial relationships. For this reason, the play rests in the hands of the actors. In this case, the cast succeeded in capturing the audience by creating tangible tension and passion, leaving them brooding over the complexity of love and hate. Their physical language, the expressiveness of their body motions, were especially hypnotic, helping to escalate the drama to its shocking climax. With traces of Oedipal drama, and Biblical influences, "Desire Under the Elms" left the audience pondering the human struggle between stony rigidity and seductive passion.

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