New England meets Oedipus in Goodman’s Desire

Goodman Theatre’s production of Desire Under the Elms does justice to O’Neill’s powerful vision and poetic language.

By Nora Sorena Casey

No one wrote plays quite like Eugene O’Neill. His intense depictions of love, hatred, and failure are couched in deeply poetic language, creating extraordinary drama. In Desire Under the Elms, O’Neill explores the possibilities of bringing Greek tragedy to a New England setting, and the Goodman Theatre’s star-studded production works hard enough to keep up.

Desire revolves around a family of New England farmers embroiled in a feud over the inheritance of the family farm. After leaving the farm for a long period, Ephraim Cabot, the bitter and possessive patriarch, returns with his new bride, a young woman named Abbie. His sons are threatened by his return, believing it spoils their chances of inheriting the farm.  Each of the characters hates the others, each wants ownership of the farm, and in a variety of ways, the characters come to love each other as well.

Stars of stage and screen helm the production, which is the centerpiece of the theater’s series, “A Global Exploration: Eugene O’Neill in the 21st Century.” Brian Dennehy, who plays Ephraim Cabot, has won Tony Awards for best actor and has done voicing for the movie Ratatouille. Pablo Schreiber previously worked on Broadway and in the Woody Allen film Vicky Cristina Barcelona, here giving a turn as the fiery son Eben. Ephraim’s new wife is played by Carla Gugino, a veteran of Broadway who has made appearances in Entourage, Sin City, and the soon-to-be-released Watchmen. All of their ability and passion is brought to the stage to capture the tense relationships between the characters and the beauty of O’Neill’s poetic language.

The Goodman production takes an innovative turn with a set design composed entirely of rocks and boulders, with nary an elm to be seen. This choice turns Ephraim’s words into a literal reality:  “This place was nothing but stones,” he says, reflecting on his farm and emotional state all at once. “God’s hard! Not easy. God’s in the stones.” The imagery of the land is closely tied to the themes of possession and ownership, and the physical space is a constant reminder of the divides between the characters.

While the stones are striking, the most compelling thing about Desire is the way romantic relationships are able to grow even in the midst of so much bitterness. Between the growth of nature and the immovable hardness of stone, the characters in Desire seem as trapped as any Greek tragic figure. Eben also harbors a love for his stepmother that may call to mind Oedipus and makes for an interesting seduction.

Much like Greek drama, the “fatedness” of every character’s actions does not prevent Desire from being a mesmerizing and moving story. While O’Neill’s use of country dialect gives it a slightly dated feel, the play’s timeless themes of ownership and the allure of the West vindicates its reputation as an American masterpiece. The play’s outsized emotions and grandiose language may leave some audience members longing for the everyday, banal world. More likely, they’ll find themselves ready to return to O’Neill’s world later in the month, as the Goodman’s “Exploration” of his corpus continues.