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Eugene O’Neill’s “Desire Under the Elms” Is a Backwoodsy, Brutal Classic, Now Playing at RLT

Raleigh Little Theatre's upcoming production of "Desire Under the Elms" stars Brian Yandle Heather Strickland as Eben and Abbie (photo by Curtis Brown Photography)

Raleigh Little Theatre‘s upcoming production of “Desire Under the Elms” stars Brian Yandle Heather Strickland as Eben and Abbie (photo by Curtis Brown Photography)

Kudos to Raleigh Little Theatre for shouldering a production of Desire Under the Elms by Nobel Laureate (and three-time Pulitzer Prize winner) Eugene O’Neill, America’s foremost playwright of the 20th century. His work was not easy to deal with in the early part of last century, and is even more difficult in the beginning of the 21st century. Melodramatic Darwinistic naturalism is not very palatable nowadays.

RLT guest director David Henderson has taken on the challenge of presenting this Americanized Greek Tragedy. For the most part, he has done a commendable job.

The pacing is slow — slow from the beginning where many pauses appeared to be intended to be dramatic, perhaps to show that the speaker was choosing his words, lost in thought. There is much lugging of logs and stones in the early scenes, and it was not clear why that was being done — the script does not call for this action.

Although set designer Shannon Clark has created a stunning set, there is a visual problem caused by the two downstage studs, which hold up the porch roof. They block important scenes for some viewers. However, it must be added that the house front, which is flown in often, is smooth, efficient, and quiet.

Director David Henderson’s casting choices work very well, with one exception; and that exception doesn’t impede the telling of this complicated family story. Brian Yandle captures the lonely, grieving younger half-brother Eben, driven to extremes by his need to claim what he believes to be his dead mother’s legacy of the Cabot farm. Yandle makes us feel Eben’s sense of his mother’s continued presence, which is also symbolized by the eponymous two giant elm trees that hover over the home and the lives of the four men.

Abbie, the scheming, greedy, third wife of the Cabot patriarch, is coyly played by Heather J. Strickland, who leaves us with no doubt as to the depths of her depravity, and bewildered at what she does in the name of love.

Gus Allen as Simeon and Aaron Young as Peter do fine jobs as the older half-brothers who give up on the circumstances of their lives and head out for California in search of easy riches. Mark Phialas gives us a limited performance as Ephraim Cabot, predominately varying between subdued volume and shouting. We needed more nuance to understand his role as archetypal, unsophisticated, animalistic anti-hero.

Desire Under the Elms rests among the important milestones in the history of American playwriting, introducing a philosophy that has guided and continues to influence the art even today. We applaud Raleigh Little Theatre for this show, and suggest theatergoers throughout the Triangle avail themselves of this production.

SECOND OPINION: Oct. 15th Durham, NC Indy Week review by Byron Woods (who awarded the show 2 of 5 stars): http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/stony-characters-resist-interpretation-in-desire-under-the-elms/Content?oid=4269306; Oct. 13th Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/2014/10/13/4230229/rlts-desire-a-sincere-effort-to.html; and Oct. 12th Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Trey K. Morehouse: http://www.cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=7008.

Raleigh Little Theatre presents DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS at 3 p.m. Oct. 19, 8 p.m. Oct. 23-25, and 3 p.m. Oct. 26 in RLT‘s Cantey V. Sutton Theatre, 301 Pogue St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27607.

TICKETS: $22 ($18 students and seniors 62+).

BOX OFFICE: 919-821-3111 or https://raleighlittletheatre.secure.force.com/.

SHOW: http://raleighlittletheatre.org/shows/14-15/desire.html and https://www.facebook.com/events/842691849081113/.

VIDEO PREVIEW (by Dave Petrone): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-pUTYAYJcCM.

2014-15 SEASON: http://raleighlittletheatre.org/shows/14-15/index.html.

PRESENTER/VENUE: http://www.raleighlittletheatre.org/, https://www.facebook.com/RaleighLittleTheatre, https://twitter.com/RLT1936, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raleigh_Little_Theatre, and http://www.youtube.com/user/raleighlittletheatre.

DIRECTIONS/PARKING: http://raleighlittletheatre.org/about/map-directions.html.

NOTE 1: RLT cautions, “Desire Under the Elms contains mature themes and may not be suitable for children.”

NOTE 2: All shows are wheelchair accessible, and assistive-listening devices are available for all shows.

NOTE 3: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh will audio-describe the 3 p.m. Sunday, October 19th, performance.

NOTE 4: There will be a post-show discussion about controversies surrounding this play, with attorney and Duke University adjunct professor Daniel M. Ellison, RLT guest director David Henderson, and cast members, following the the 3 p.m. Sunday, October 19th, performance.

OTHER LINKS:

Desire Under the Elms (1924 Off-Broadway and Broadway play): http://www.eoneill.com/companion/desire/index.htm (Eugene O’Neill’s official website), http://www.ibdb.com/show.php?id=3035 (Internet Broadway Database), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Desire_Under_the_Elms (Wikipedia).

Study Guide: http://www.eoneill.com/companion/desire/index.htm (Eugene O’Neill’s official website).

Eugene O’Neill (New York, NY-born playwright, 1888-1953): http://www.eoneill.com/ (official website), http://www.ibdb.com/person.php?id=5463 (Internet Broadway Database), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eugene_O%27Neill (Wikipedia).

David Henderson (Raleigh-based RLT guest director): http://about.me/david_henderson (official website) and https://www.facebook.com/theatrescot (Facebook page).

EDITOR’S NOTE:

Martha Keravuori is a life-long theater artist — an actress, director, and stage manager — in North Carolina, around the country, and overseas. She has a theater degree from UNC-Greensboro, and has been active in the arts in Raleigh for the past 40 years. Martha is the retired executive director of the North Carolina Theatre Conference. Chuck Galle returned to Raleigh last year after a 17-year absence. He was active in community theater for many years, and directed the troupe of maximum-security inmates at Raleigh’s Central Prison known as the Central Prison Players. In New England, he performed on stage, on TV, and in films. He is the author of Stories I Never Told My Daughter — An Odyssey, which can be ordered on his website: http://www.chuckgalle.com/. Chuck Galle and Martha Keravuori review theater for Boom! Magazine of Cary. Click here to read more of their reviews for Boom! Magazine and here to read more of their reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.

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