Given his eminence in American theatre, it is surprising that the works of Eugene O’Neill, the son of Irish emigrants, are not performed more often in this country. Then again, O’Neill tended to favour the epic over the intimate, his plays often require elaborate staging, and they have not dated particularly well.
Desire Under The Elms is a case in point. The 18th of his 32 full-length plays, it labours under its allusions to Greek tragedy and O’Neill’s insistence on capturing the nuances of New England backwoods speech. Sadly, the accent of the rural hick has been parodied so often in American film and theatre that it is hard to take seriously any attempt to reproduce it in a straight drama. In this production, the five actors’ accents are not really consistent either.
The plot of Desire Under The Elms could have been lifted from an Irish folk tale. An elderly farmer, with two sons from his first marriage and one from his second, marries a third time; the youngest son buys out his older brothers and embarks on an affair with the young wife; she bears him a child that they pass off as the old man’s; tragedy ensues.
O’Neill’s treatment of this material is convoluted in the extreme. The opening act sees the youngest son, Eben (Fionn Walton), negotiate his brothers’ departure for California at inordinate length. The arrival of Ephraim (Lalor Roddy) and young Abbie (Janet Moran) does much to enliven the drama, but their relationship is explained in more detail than is entirely necessary. And the denouement, when it comes, is largely predictable.
Moran does much to evoke sympathy for Abbie — a woman struggling to assert her place in a man’s world — while Roddy shines as Ephraim, who repeatedly insists that “God is hard” and his sons too soft. He has a point. By the end, you are left with the impression that Simeon and Peter, his other boys, did the manly thing by leaving.