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Play Review: 'Desire Under the Elms' an emotional, visceral ride

From the dialect of its script to its intense triangular relationship, the play presents challenges.

December 09, 2011|By Lynne Heffley
  • Monette Magrath (Abbie) and Jason Dechert (Eben) in A Noise Within's production of "Desire Under the Elms" by Eugene O'Neill, directed by Damaso Rodriguez. (Photo by Craig Schwartz)
Monette Magrath (Abbie) and Jason Dechert (Eben) in A…

Adultery, infanticide, overtones of incest and patricidal urges: Eugene O’Neill’s 1924 American classic, “Desire Under the Elms,” with its deliberate evocation of mythic Greek tragedy, caused an uproar when it was first produced. Indeed, a 1926 production in Los Angeles was deemed so obscene that its actors were arrested.

In reality, of course, the stage has never been a stranger to all manner of sexual dysfunction and brutality. And the shock value of O’Neill’s play about the converging fates of a rigid tyrant obsessed with the farm he has scratched from stony ground, the sons who covet it and a seductive new stepmother with a predatory eye — may seem somewhat blunted by today’s measure.

Still, “Desire” remains one of the playwright’s less produced plays. “It is very compelling, but extremely intimidating,” said Dámaso Rodriguez, who is directing the drama as part of A Noise Within’s inaugural season in Pasadena, where it runs in repertory through Dec. 18. “And in large part, that’s because when you look at the text, it’s almost as if it’s written in another language.”


While “Desire” is set in mid-19th century rural New England, the dialect that O’Neill created for his tormented, archetypal characters — “hum” for “home,” “wuked” for “worked,” “yewr’n” for “yours” — is something of a lingual leap into the unknown, Rodriguez said.

“We don’t know what it sounded like in his head, but for me, I think it helps connect the play to its Greek origins, giving an otherworldly, distant quality to these people.”

To approximate O’Neill’s language on the page and allow for clarity and accessibility on A Noise Within’s new thrust stage, Rodriguez and the cast worked with a dialect coach.

“Once we got over that barrier, we found the play extremely easy to connect with. I feel on the whole, the play takes care of you. The way it is structured, the way O’Neill uses repetition, the way you experience the play, suddenly you realize that you are cued into it somehow: That’s O’Neill, that’s the play.”

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