There are sets, and then there are sets. For the Goodman Theater’s intense and emotionally still-evolving, Broadway-bound production of Eugene O’Neill’s 1924 tragedy, “Desire Under the Elms,” helmer Robert Falls and designer Walt Spangler have delivered a set to behold — daring, imposing, acutely provocative and probably purposefully perplexing. Not at all an abstract version of O’Neill’s own vision of an 1850 Connecticut farm and farmhouse, Spangler’s creation reflects almost a direct counterpoint to it. When, as frequently occurs, characters look out at the sunset over this landscape and declare it “purty,” there’s a clearly intentional dissonance. It most certainly is not purty.
First, of course, is the absence of elms. Instead, we see a dreamscape of rocks and more rocks, including big boulders hanging from thick ropes, some of them blurred behind a scrim, as if they were under water. And then, early on, the house descends from the flies, also held up by ropes, causing a notable thud as it lands on the stage for a scene before spending most of the time suspended above the playing space.
Operating on a metaphorical plane, and born of the play’s frequent references to stone walls and stony hearts, this world is far less American Gothic than American Gulag, depicting life as forced labor and home quite literally as something that can lift you up or fall on your head and kill you.
To that extent, the setting feels appropriate for O’Neill’s first full effort at combining Americana with Greek tragic form in this story of an aging patriarch whose new wife and youngest son fall for each other, leading to horrific consequences.
It’s not an easy thing for actors to stand up to this brash set, but the cast here, led by an ideal Brian Dennehy, adds its own degree of big-ness and boldness. There may be no elms, but there’s a whole lot of desire.
Dennehy couldn’t be more convincing as Ephraim Cabot, a man who talks of how, by the sheer sweat of his brow, he took rocky terrain (rocks, check) and turned it into a fertile farm filled with corn and cows (OK, those you need to imagine, although there is a dead pig that’s gutted onstage).
Silver-haired and powerful both physically and emotionally, Dennehy digs into every facet of this character: his belief in a “hard” God, his disdain for his own sons, his possessiveness, his susceptibility to manipulation by his young and beautiful wife. The character is relentlessly hateful and the performance packed with integrity.
As the young wife Abbie, Carla Gugino brings an excellent combination of spunk and neediness. She’s a survivor in a world that punishes softness, and yet she’s also vulnerable. When she falls for Ephraim’s youngest son Eben (Pablo Schreiber), she falls hard, making her willing to do whatever it takes to sustain that love.
Eben is a wickedly difficult character to play, heavily burdened by emotional leaps that happen more quickly than the still-raw O’Neill fully prepares for (he had won two Pulitzers at this point, but his acknowledged masterpieces were still two decades away). One second Eben is all hate, and then all love and then all fear and mistrust in a vicious cycle ripe with Oedipal psychodrama.
Schreiber has enormous talent and he holds nothing back. His Eben overflows with constant impulses of anger and lust and sheer want. When he jumps on the dinner table and stomps — Falls has pretty much everyone embrace the dinner table at one point or another, even Eben’s brawnier older brothers — it’s a genuine expression of furious confusion.
But the performance is still ripening. The individual beats are all there, but Schreiber pitches it all at such a consistently fervid level it becomes monotonous. He admirably risks the overwrought, but the actor and Falls haven’t yet married nuance and moments of quiet agony with the relentless intensity.
For that reason, it’s easy to leave this “Desire Under the Elms” feeling stimulated, but still desiring a more truly moving impact. If Falls can deliver on that desire, this will be more than a show where everyone talks about how to interpret the extraordinary set.