Writer: Eugene O’Neill
Director: Sam Yates
Designer: Chiara Stephenson
Reviewer: Sheila Stratford
Desire Under the Elms is a powerful and moving play. The highly acclaimed American playwright Eugene O’Neill wrote this play in 1924. He was strongly influenced by Greek tragedy which impacted on his work. During his lifetime, he won four Pulitzer prizes and the Nobel prize for literature. With such credentials, one would expect the play to be great and it does not disappoint.
Set on a farmstead in rural New England in the mid-1800s, life on the farm is hard. Ephraim, a widower, has three sons Peter and Simon from his first wife and Eben from his second wife. The sons are resentful of their father and his bullying, cantankerous ways. They only stay in the hope of one day inheriting the farm. It is the time of the California gold rush and the two older sons are tempted west by the promise of a better life. They leave as their ageing father brings home a new young wife and their younger brother Eben buys them off with the hidden family savings.
Eben is full of bitterness and grief at the untimely death of his mother. The resentment he holds towards his father is also transferred to Abbie, his new stepmother, whom he perceives as wanting to cheat him off his inheritance. But then a smouldering passion and love develop between Eben and Abbie with tragic consequences.
The Crucible thrust stage is transformed into a most magnificent setting with video-enhanced brooding skies. The dirt-covered stage, burning campfire, water pump, and field of wheat create an absorbing atmosphere of a hard rural life as they work the dry earth on stage.
The scene changes are at times marked by powerful musical chords and a lone, on-stage fiddle player (Emma Darlow) reminds the audience of the simplicity of people’s lives. There is a natural flow to the scene changes helped by sympathetic lightning. All these different elements work together in creating the greatness of this play.
Aoife Duffin as Abbie is superb. She portrays the strength of her emotions, she is captivating, not melodramatic or voluptuous but passionate with a kind of innocence; a rare mix. Matthew Kelly as Ephiam is perfectly cast as the domineering patriarch ranting on stage against his sons and the passing of his years. He evokes fear and revulsion and yet a certain dignity. Michael Shea as Eben the tortured younger son must flip from bitterness, to love, to mistrust and loathing, it is a difficult task which he manages well.
Despite all the bitterness, hardship and tragedy, there are times of emotional relief and a lightness that allows the audience to laugh. O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms on the Crucible stage is not to be missed.
Runs until 14 October 2017 | Image: Marc Brenner