Melissa Kuhlmann electrifies . . . Even in an unseasonably chilly May, Kuhlmann makes us feel the steam and perspiration of a stifling hot summer, and just as her character Abbie stakes her ground on the Cabot family farm, so does this superb actress make O'Neill's saga of forbidden desire her own.
O'Neill borrowed the Oedipal legend from the Ancient Greeks, while keeping his play firmly rooted in early 20th Century rural Americana. Crotchety old patriarch Ephraim Cabot has just taken his third wife, a young woman named Abbie, who is anxious to take over the family farm and make a new home and life for herself. She will have quite a fight on her hands, though, with Ephraim's youngest son, Eben, who believes the property belonged to his late mother and that he is its rightful beneficiary.
To stake his claim, Eben pays off his elder half brothers Peter and Simeon, who plan to strike it rich in the California Gold Rush. And while Abbie and Eben grapple over ownership rights to the family homestead, the inevitable sparks begin to fly and the tragic wheels of lust and fate begin to turn. And what of old Ephraim? Will he just roll over for the young 'uns without a good fight? Don't bet on it.
While the play is ostensibly set in O'Neill's New England, Director Chris Riter's staging seems rooted in West Virginia. Tom Gordon's earnest and folksy manner is credible . . . But it is Kuhlmann who walks away with the acting honors in an earthy, ripe and sensuous performance that is fully committed and riveting. There are moments in this small black box staging that are stirring and powerful . . .Kuhlmann's work is unforgettable.
"Desire Under the Elms" continues through June 3, 2006 at Oracle Theatre, 3809 N. Broadway in Chicago. The play runs 2 hours 10 minutes with intermission. Performances are Wednesday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Tickets are $20 and may be reserved by calling (773) 267-6293 or visit www.greyzelda.com.