BWW Review: Eugene O'Neill's DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS at Firehouse Theatre: Simple, Brutal Brilliance
*Review written by Brent Deekens
For those unfamiliar with Eugene O'Neill's stark allegory of a poor family's struggle against the stagnant days of the Great Depression: don't let anyone (the internet included) spoil it for you! Not even me; and I'll keep things brief here, too. Yes, go in to see Desire Under The Elms with a clean slate! For such a warranted and temporary implementation of a kind of naïveté is certain to make this haunting experience all the more visceral and captivating.
Without giving too much away, the characters themselves are neoclassical in nature, transmogrified by O'Neill to fit into his agrarian New England milieu: there is an elderly father, his new (and significantly younger) wife, and his three grown sons. Each character, perpetually weathered by an unrelenting setting and time, dearly yearns for modicums of happiness either through one another's company or in their own reveries of life elsewhere.
And... that's about all you're gonna get from me in terms of story, folks. Enrich your curious faculties by experiencing the whole of O'Neill's oeuvre firsthand at the Firehouse Theatre.
The production itself is a rave, with a solid cast assembled by director Josh Chenard. Chandler Hubbard and Adam Turck are fun and rambunctious as the younger siblings with longings of riches far, far away. Veteran character actor Alan Sader is fantastically thunderous with equal parts contempt and sympathy as the hoary pater. Amber Marie Martinez is bold, manipulative and heartbreaking as the play's main catalyst. And Landon Nagel, in a tower of exacting strength, delivers one of his most layered performances to date: introverted and tortured, yet also tender and expectant. The work of these serious actors is a stirring affair with further assistance credited to Erica Hughes as their dialect instructor.
And in terms of design, Jessica Moreno Caycho's costumes are appropriately unassuming and timely. The raked set is perfectly realized and balanced by Chris Raintree; characters move throughout with a near-seamless finesse. And Bill Miller's lighting design is, at times, shocking - even going so far as to evoke allusions of Heaven and Hell.
Now, concerning the controversial elements to the show: some audiences may be somewhat repelled by the use of nudity, which is considerable (but not gaudy). And playgoers more familiar with the works of Eugene O'Neill may be put off by the artistic cuts made to the text. Yet I felt both courses of action were effectively implemented. The nudity abetted in presenting the bleak simplicity of the characters' close-knit world. And the text itself never once seemed altogether out-of-touch or drudgingly longwinded (to which every writer can be guilty of at times, most especially yours truly).
In summation, Mr. Chenard has given the audience a palpable slice of life from a bygone era, presenting a tragedy as old as Aeschylus without ever feeling antiquated. We, the audience, feel this world wholeheartedly. The characters are so authentically entwined in their setting that this exuding, incorporeal "force to be reckoned with" transcends itself to the viewers, leaving us transfixed and emotionally satisfied.
Eugene O'Neill's Desire Under The Elms runs through November 18th at the Firehouse Theatre.