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[whitespace] Matthew Miller, Kimiko Gelman Forbidden Affair: Eben (Matthew Miller) and Abbie (Kimiko Gelman) pursue a love that must end badly in 'Desire Under the Elms.'

Power Struggles

SJ Rep fights its way through Eugene O'Neill's thorny 'Desire Under the Elms'

By Heather Zimmerman

OEDIPUS REX has nothing on Eben Cabot of Eugene O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms--at least that famous figure of Greek tragedy didn't seek out a dysfunctional family life. But initially, part of the attraction for Eben (Matthew Miller) of an affair with his attractive young stepmother, Abbie (Kimiko Gelman), is the potential for vengeance on his iron-fisted father, Ephraim (Gerry Bamman), whom Eben blames for the death of his mother and despises for his takeover of her farm.

Led by the noble belief that he acts to restore mother's stolen legacy, Eben suffers from a case of hubris surpassed only by that of his father, whose oppressive work ethic and smug self- righteousness alienate everyone who knows him, including his other two sons, Peter and Simeon (Michael Ray Wisely and Brian Keith Russell), who leave home at the first opportunity. San José Repertory Theatre offers an intelligent but flawed production of O'Neill's classical tragedy set in 19th-century New England.

That's not for lack of an inspired interpretation. Director Michael Butler strips the play down to its most primal themes and simultaneously adds an intriguing new level. Giulio Cesare Perrone's set design covers the stage in soil, a cunningly ever-present reminder of what Eben and Ephraim fight for ownership of: land and, by extension, nature--a traditionally female entity that recalls the two men's other "battleground," Abbie. Butler has also added a kind of ghost story in expanding the character of the Fiddler (Morgan Fitcher) into an otherworldly female figure who looms near Eben, playing mournful tunes. Her presence is like an incarnation of the misery caused by Ephraim's cruelty, lending credence to Eben's claims.

The production offers a rich vision of O'Neill's work, but like the Cabots themselves, it suffers from being too forced. The production's biggest flaw is unequivocally the clipped New England dialect in which the play was written. The unwieldy dialect clearly cows the cast, a fact highlighted by stodgy, stilted performances in the exposition-heavy first act. These thick speech affectations get left behind somewhat in the second act as the actors warm to their characters. The gain in intimacy is worth the sacrifice of some of their too-studied authenticity.

On the other hand, a cleverly staged but logistically unworkable scene shows the dangers of too much creative meddling: two "beds" placed vertically on the stage give the audience a voyeuristic peek into the beds of Eben, Abbie and Ephraim, but the actors concentrate too much on maintaining the visual illusion, struggling with keeping their balance and with sheets velcroed in place. The power of the scene is greatly diminished by their contortions.

The play is at its best in its least deliberate scenes, during which the actors seem to focus less on pronouncing their lines correctly and instead on the emotions behind what they're saying--such scenes are wonderfully powerful, some almost explosive.

In the end, Desire Under the Elms demonstrates the disastrous consequences of trying to exert total control over nature, and this production could have benefited from heeding similar advice. Like Eben, who never comprehends that his battle with his father only perpetuates Ephraim's ways, this production tries too hard to control O'Neill's work and suffers something like Oedipus' fate in the process.

Desire Under the Elms plays Tuesday-Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 3 and 8pm; Sunday at 2 and 7pm through Nov. 21 at the San José Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose. Tickets are $17-$35. (408.367.7255)

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From the November 4-10, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. MetroActive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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