Mounting Eugene O’Neill’s gloomy masterpiece ”Mourning Becomes Electra” is a formidable task rarely undertaken on U.S. stages. Washington’s Shakespeare Theater makes it worth the wait with a production that is stunning in every detail. Director Michael Kahn’s staging summons all of the intensity surely envisioned by O’Neill, while performances and design elements are among the most impressive seen here in years.
O’Neill set the 1931 play in a New England seaside village at the end of the Civil War, where the troubled Mannon family awaits the return of its brigadier general patriarch. But his wife has become unfaithful, setting in motion a Greek-like saga of crime, revenge and death. The Shakespeare Theater meets this play of excesses head-on.
The production is a visually breathtaking collaboration by designers Ming Cho Lee and Jane Greenwood, with the Greek neoclassical mansion exterior dictated by the playwright presented as a gleaming white structure dominated by a tall door. The turntable stage showcases large, formal rooms (portraits of the father and other ancestry are placed intriguingly on the floor, not hung) and accommodates the pivotal boat scene. Greenwood’s arresting costumes, including lavish treatments of flowing Civil War-era dresses, are all in blacks and grays except for two bright green dresses, in keeping with some of O’Neill’s most poignant symbolism.
Actress Kelly McGillis is intense as the daughter, Lavinia, the character based on the Greek myth’s Electra. Holding her philandering mother (Franchelle Stewart Dorn) in utter contempt, Lavinia calmly toys with the older woman’s fragile emotions while plotting revenge. McGillis hurls invectives in word, glance and deed, saving the best for act three when she silently assumes her mother’s identity and stoically accepts her fate.
Dorn is every bit her match as the manipulative mother, a pitiable concoction of selfishness and sexual passion. Robert Sella delivers a performance of great depth and dimension as the tortured brother who detests his father as passionately as he adores his mother. Two other principals, Ted van Griethuysen’s father and Brett Porter’s paramour, are also nicely drawn, as are secondary roles.
With its lavish stagings of modern classics (next season includes Ibsen’s ”Peer Gynt” and Tennessee Williams’ ”Sweet Bird of Youth”), the Shakespeare Theater has quietly become the most consistent company in town.