Desire Under the Elms
Goodman Theatre
(312) 443-3800


Director Robert Falls’ “fierce and relentless” take on Desire Under the Elms is “Eugene O’Neill on steroids,” said Hedy Weiss in the Chicago Sun-Times. O’Neill’s play recounts the romantic rivalry between a hardened old New England farmer named Ephraim and his trod-upon son Eben, as they vie for the love of Ephraim’s scheming young wife, Abbie. Here the tiny Oedipal tale has been staged on “gargantuan terms.” The set is littered with huge boulders, metaphors for the “overpowering weight of nature.” An entire farmhouse is “hoisted on thick rope pulleys, looming over the set like a terrifying anvil.” Realism this is not, but the tableau seems uniquely fitting for the primal contest that follows.

It takes actors with strong presence to stand out in such an overpowering environment, said Kerry Reid in the Chicago Reader. This cast rises to the challenge. Pablo Schreiber portrays Eben as a young man torn between his desire “for vengeance against his father” and the “consolations of maternal comfort.” Brian Dennehy makes Ephraim, a man in his 70s, seem vigorous enough to take a young wife and lord over his grown sons. As Abbie, Carla Gugino writhes, snake-like, as she seduces both Ephraim and Eben, oozing sexuality “without seeming cartoonish.” Many of Falls’ productions eventually make it to Broadway, and this one may, too. But a tendency to “remain at an intellectual remove from the unbridled passion of O’Neill’s script” would need to be fixed before it does.