Desire Under the Elms
By Eugene O’Neill. Dir. Chris Riter. With Tom Gordon, Melissa Kuhlmann, Aris Tompoulis. GreyZelda Theatre Group at Oracle Theatre.
NIGHTMARE ON ELMS STREET Kuhlmann and Gordon get to the dark heart of O’Neill.
Who knew that O’Neill’s rarely produced tragedy—written in 1924, set in 1850, and drawing on classics like Phèdre and Hippolytus (with a healthy dose of Freud’s version of Oedipus Rex)—could feel so contemporary? GreyZelda’s minimalist storefront treatment draws a direct line from O’Neill to more modern works like Shepard’s Buried Child and Romulus Linney’s dark Appalachian plays. O’Neill’s influence on said latter playwrights is clear in Riter’s bare-bones and basement-budget staging of the love affair between Eben (Gordon) and Abbie (Kuhlmann), doomed not least because Abbie’s the new wife of Eben’s hard-hearted religious tyrant father, Ephraim (Tompoulis), who’s built walls between himself and his son as impermeable as the stone walls surrounding his farm.
The leads in this romantic tragedy are both terrific, especially Kuhlmann, who can be simultaneously coldly determined and confused with passion. She maintains this multiplicity of emotion until Abbie’s climactic breakdown, when she goes blank and weary, as though she’s run out of feelings. The character of Ephraim feels more kinship with his stony land, his livestock, and his idea of God than with his human family, but Riter allows Tompoulis too much free rein; he makes Ephraim a cartoonish, sneering ape, and sinks so deep into O’Neill’s cotton-mouthed dialect as to be unintelligible. Still, Riter’s physical, fast-paced staging makes things fresh, and scenic designer Heath Hays gets extra credit for evoking the vastly oppressive New England farmland without the benefit of stones, walls or indeed those onerous elms.—Kris Vire