While there’s plenty of desire simmering under the trees that surround the Cabot farm, nothing comes without a price, and Eugene O’Neill is going to make sure you know it. The play some call “the first real American tragedy” is heavy with Biblical and classical references, from the Old Testament names of the characters (Eph-raim, Simeon, Peter) to the punishment dealt the murderous. Written quickly in 1924, allegedly straight from a dream, Desire Under the Elms pretty much covers the “thou shalt not covets,” and throws some of the deadly sins into the bargain.
At the center of the action is the farm, which might belong to young Eben through his late mother, or Eben and his half-brothers, or Eben’s father Ephraim. Depends on whom you talk to. Things get more complicated when Ephraim remarries, be-cause young Abbie’s determined to become a landed woman herself, even if it means laying with her much-older husband, whom she clearly doesn’t like. The wrong people fall in love and things get messy in a pattern that will be familiar to anyone who knows the story of Phaedra, or that of Oedipus, or the Old Testament’s Hosea. Because O’Neill was like that too: If one meaning-heavy substructure is good, clearly three or more will be better, right? And while we’re at it, how about some rock symbolism? The brothers begin the play complaining about how all they do all day is build rock walls (“Stones on top of stones, making stone walls, years on top of years”), and two of the three have rock-related names. One even throws a rock through the window to show his displeasure with the new bride.
It’s a complex play, but not a subtle one; the ending is as predictable as anything that sprang from Aeschylus’ stylus. Fortunately, director Lee Sankowich can be a subtle guy, and his actors resist the urge to overplay their parts. No small task when you’ve got the patriarch railing “God’s hard and lonesome” against his faithless wife, or when Abbie (the silky-voiced Jessa Brie Birkner, playing yet another unfaithful wife) makes her play for Eben by talking about how the heat makes things grow. The text is pretty blunt, but the actors are nimble and the chemistry strong. The first time Abbie and Eben meet, he’s cleaning his nails with a butter knife and thinking about how she’s usurping his dead mama’s place; Ryan Montgomery’s explosive boy-man gets a lot of character into one distrustful “meh-bee.” Ed Sarafian’s Ephraim is a blowhard, but Sarafian captures the man’s essential pathos, the loneliness that drives him to sleep out in the barn some nights.
Sankowich’s blocking is especially effective. There are two points where Abbie and Eben are moving the same way even though they’re not in the same room. The paired motion is understated and powerful, suggesting that these two couldn’t escape their downfall if they tried — not that they try all that hard. It’s an intense night at CenterREP, marked by passion and violence in near-equal measure.