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Theater review: 'Desire Under the Elms' at A Noise Within

November 22, 2011 |  2:30 pm

“Desire Under the Elms”
It’s appropriate that A Noise Within’s second offering in its new Pasadena facility should be Eugene O’Neill’s “Desire Under the Elms.”  Like the boulder-strewn farm in the play, which has only been rendered tillable by Herculean human toil, the producers at A Noise Within had to navigate a rocky path through one of the worst recessions in American history to see their dream of a multimillion-dollar new theater realized.

Certainly, in fine A Noise Within tradition, the production is handsomely well-realized, although director Dámaso Rodriguez and his cast stumble over a few pebbles along the way.

Set in 1850 New England, the play revolves around the struggle for dominance between young Eben Cabot (Jason Dechert) and his overbearingly patriarchal father, Ephraim (William Dennis Hunt.) Eben resents the fact that his father “stole” the family’s farm from his mother, Ephraim’s second wife, long dead but seemingly not departed from this austere and haunted farmhouse. 

When Ephraim disappears for several weeks, his progeny, including Eben’s two older half-brothers, Peter (Stephen Rockwell) and Simeon (Christopher Fairbanks) happily conjecture that their poisonous pater may be dead.  Those fond hopes are shattered when Ephraim arrives back home with a youthful new bride, Abbie (Monette Magrath), in tow.  That development sends Peter and Simeon lock-marching off to the gold fields of California, leaving Eben, Ephraim and the sultry Abbie locked in a torrid triangle that bodes ill for all.

O’Neill famously alleged that the plot of “Desire,” a folkloric retelling of the “Phaedra” legend, came to him in a dream.  If so, it was certainly a fever dream, and Rodriguez occasionally overheats the play’s intrinsically melodramatic elements into a rattling potboiler.  Still, the operatic scale of the piece defies any method-based interpretation, and most of the performers fully flesh out their overblown outlines.  In that context, Magrath’s modestly naturalistic performance seems somewhat ill-placed alongside the unflinchingly towering turns of her peers.

Broad New England accents, only intermittently successful here, are another stumbling block.  But, superb design elements, particularly John Iacovelli’s monastically stark set and James P. Taylor’s autumnal lighting, evoke a hardscrabble landscape where masculine softness is the ultimate failing and only proudly adamantine men like Ephraim hold sway.  Endre Balogh’s elegiac original fiddle music, played live by Balogh, sets the tone for unfolding tragedy in this challenging classic, which weaves myth, melodrama and folklore into a distinctively American patchwork.

— F. Kathleen Foley

“Desire Under the Elms,” A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena.  8 p.m. Dec. 1-3; 2 and 7 p.m. Dec. 11; 2 and 8 p.m. Dec. 17; 2 p.m. Dec. 18. Ends Dec. 18.  $42-$46.  (626) 356-3100, Ext. 1.  Running time:  2 hours, 10 minutes.

Photo: Monette Magrath, Jason Dechert and William Dennis Hunt.  Credit: Craig Schwartz.