Theater Reviews

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Odyssey Theatre, Los Angeles
Through July 29

When it premiered in 1926, "Desire Under the Elms" erupted not only onto the American theatrical scene but also into the controversial realm of public morality with its frank observations of greed, lust, sex, incest and infanticide in a rural New England family. Tastes change, however, and what was shocking a century ago has become everyday fare even for children.

Undeterred, director Jeffrey Hayden and a magnificent Odyssey Theatre Ensemble cast have liberated much of "Desire's" original power with a series of bold strokes that neither compromise its integrity nor lose its profoundly personal focus on the human spirit. Against the familiar rock-strewn backdrop, the production captures the isolation of aging patriarch Ephraim Cabot (Charlie Robinson), his voluptuous new wife, Abbie (Nadege August), and his embittered, disenfranchised son, Eben (David Batiste), as they articulate and act out the emotional fantasies and traumas that both drive and threaten their attempts to find love.

Hayden furthers their isolation by asking them to speak in an accent, described in a pre-play announcement as "upper Maine," which leaves each on their own as to what it is and so varies inconsistently from Irish to Arcadian and points in between. It not only introduces a provocatively unpredictable element into the play but it also makes each word sound as if it had struggled out of the granite landscape in which the characters live, making it impossible for them to communicate effectively with one another.

Changing the characters' ethnic background from white to black provides a useful theatrical jolt to anyone who is expecting stock Anglo farmers and resonates with O'Neill's concerns for racial justice expressed explicitly in "All God's Chillun Got Wings" and "The Emperor Jones." It pales as a factor in the production's excellence, however, when compared to the differing, nonhomogeneous acting styles of Robinson, Batiste and August.

Robinson plays the old man as a craggy, leaning tower of confused religious beliefs and waning sexual powers. He bemoans his lonely fate. He punctuates his speech with awkward pauses and never manages the eloquence he hears so clearly in his heart. With simplicity and patience, he makes the audience understand how deeply a person's sadness can be rooted in the renunciation of free will.

The exotic-looking August, who has the most self-conscious but also the most beautiful of the accents, alternates convincingly between controlled hopes for a new beginning and uncontrolled memories of a haunted past. Abbie's ability to convince men of the genuineness of her passion contrasts painfully with a corresponding inability to convince herself, and August uses the contrast to push Abbie headlong into madness and homicide.

Batiste uses his own extraordinary beauty to create a sensual, disturbingly schizophrenic allure under whose spell he alone completely falls. At times, his gestures recall Sidney Poitier and James Edwards, but mostly they are eloquently his own, and preview a bright future.

Despite the leisurely pace of the story and the extended nature of much of the dialogue, the play holds together compellingly because of an outstanding supporting cast led by Ernest Harden Jr. and Dig Wayne as Eben's brothers, who set up the story with vivid widescreen scope and enthusiasm.

Set designer Charles Erven uses every inch of the small stage almost to overflowing, providing the actors with more than adequate room in which to stretch without bumping into one another. Naila Sanders' costumes fit the characters' personas with rare insight.

If it were a perfect world, a production like this would be moved to larger theaters so that it could stretch its wings and expose a wider audience to the difficult glories of the human experience.

DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS
Presented by the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble
Credits:
Playwright: Eugene O'Neill
Director: Jeffrey Hayden
Producers: Ron Sossi, Beth Hogan and the Saint/Hayden Co.
Set designer: Charles Erven
Lighting designer: Terry Hung
Costume designer: Naila Sanders
Stage manager: Susan Walsh
Assistant to the director: Lea White
Cast:
Ephraim Cabot
Charlie Robinson
Abbie Putnam: Nadege August
Eben Cabot: David Batiste
Peter Cabot: Ernest Harden Jr.
Simeon Cabot: Dig Wayne
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