From the moment the lights come up on two sweat-soaked brothers hauling a massive load of rocks, Desire Under the Elms is loaded with heavy and hot-blooded emotional struggles. Watching an expert cast strain under the burden is fascinating, even if the release theatergoers may crave is lacking.
The level of blood, sweat, and tears packed into O'Neill's 90-minute melodrama is impressive to say the least. The impossibly, inhumanly alluring Carla Gugino manifests Abbie as a woman so scarred by life's hardships, it's plain to see how her hunger for comfort drives her to disastrous ends. Pablo Schreiber's Eben impressively matches her as a man desperate for a woman's attention and encouragement, particularly in the face of his father's relentless battery of mocking, emasculating dismissals. And of course, Brian Dennehy's Ephraim is brimming with a malicious spite that belies his ferocious obsession with all that he is master of, be it his farm or his own body - a body which threatens to live on for years to come despite old age and decades of hard labor. Watching these three duke it out is amazing to say the least - Carla Gugino is a marvel, and the ferocious sexual tension between her and Schreiber is exhilarating.
However, director Robert Falls has fashioned a strangely blunt emotional sledgehammer out of O'Neill's greek tragedy. Given so little space to fall in love with the characters before they begin clawing each other to shreds, the payoff is more exhausting than satisfyingly cathartic.
Desire Under the Elms is playing at the St. James Theater. By Eugene O'Neill; directed by Robert Falls; sets by Walt Spangler; costumes by Ana Kuzmanic; lighting by Michael Philippi; music and sound by Richard Woodbury; wigs by Charles G. Lapointe; technical supervisor, Larry Morley; associate producer, Broadway Across America. A Goodman Theater production. Starring Brian Dennehy (Ephraim Cabot), Carla Gugino (Abbie Putnam), Pablo Schreiber (Eben Cabot), Boris McGiver (Peter Cabot) and Daniel Stewart Sherman (Simeon Cabot).