ACT Theater artistic director Gordon Edelstein is a man of many talents, but one thing he’s particularly good at is beginnings and endings. His opening to “The Crucible” — in which a coven of “witches” danced and howled on a metal grate hanging over the audience’s heads — remains one of the indelible images of Seattle’s 1999 theater season.
The director’s current staging of Eugene O’Neill’s “Mourning Becomes Electra” also starts with a bang — a series of bangs, actually, evoking the explosive salutes that greeted the end of the Civil War. Meanwhile, in dim light, we see the doomed character of Lavinia Mannon (Mireille Enos) stride on stage, only to be entrapped by a set of movable walls, entombed in her own house. The ending is similarly ominous, as Lavinia once more enters her house (which she has earlier called “a temple of death”) and seals herself in for good.
Edelstein himself made a grand entrance at A Contemporary Theater (now ACT Theater) three years ago, turning a beleaguered institution into one of Seattle’s most active and talked-about performance venues. Now he’s making a dramatic exit — leaving the West Coast to assume the artistic directorship of Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, Conn., where he will be closer to his family.
ACT’s production of “Mourning Becomes Electra,” though for many reasons not a rollicking evening at the theater, amply demonstrates why the Seattle theater scene will miss Edelstein very much.
It’s hard to imagine a production of O’Neill’s Greek-inspired tragedy more thoughtfully cast, designed and staged. Any rough spots the show encounters (and there are a few) are brought on by the script itself, which, though certainly revolutionary in the ’30s, seems almost hopelessly dated today.
“Mourning Becomes Electra,” like “The Oresteia” on which it is based, witnesses what happens when the sins of parents — adultery and lovelessness — are visited on their children. Stylistically, it’s a blend of psychological realism (lots of characters revealing twisted motives in wrenching dialogue) and Greek tragedy (lots of inexorable violence). Originally written as a six-hour, three part trilogy, Edelstein has cut it (mercifully) to a three-act play, which runs just over three hours.
Jane Alexander is the star here, as Christine Mannon, the faithless wife of Civil War general Ezra Mannon (Michael MacRae). She expertly portrays Christine’s longing and desperation, but doesn’t dominate what is and should be an ensemble effort. Steven Sutcliffe delivers a fine performance as Orin, Christine and Ezra’s war-shocked son. And Enos plays his sister Lavinia, who puts most of the drama’s action in motion, with a toughness and clarity perfect for the part. In the opening scenes, her face seems sculpted out of stone. (O’Neill wrote much about the “masklike” quality of all the Mannons’ faces, and at one point even considered having the actors perform in half-masks.)
In O’Neill’s description, the Mannons live in a stately but soulless New England mansion. In this production, it’s designed ingeniously (by Andrew Jackness) as a group of plain, movable walls, each with a door at its center. As the walls are moved between scenes — to represent both the inside and the outside of the house — they start to look like a nightmare hallway of doors-to-nowhere. Lighting (by Jennifer Tipton) and sparse sound (by John Gromada) add to the eerie, claustrophobic mood.
The period costumes (by Paul Tazewell) are likewise simple and evocative. The most repressed characters wear stiff, black clothing; those who come closest to embracing life wear richer fabric and colors. The color scheme echoes O’Neill’s preoccupation with darkness (secrets, death) and light (truth). By the end of the play, of course, there’s no color to be seen.
With sets, lights, costumes and stage movement all working together, Edelstein pulls off the neat trick of telling a psychological tale in visual terms. In the closing scene of act one, in which Lavinia discovers the dead body of her beloved father, she crawls on top of him, weeping, her black dress covering him like a shroud. The stage picture illustrates both Lavinia’s Oedipal longings for Ezra and the cloud of death that will ultimately envelope the whole clan.
If only such images (so artfully composed) were enough to transport the audience into O’Neill’s world. Unfortunately, the script keeps putting up roadblocks. There’s plenty of brilliant writing here. (Orin’s speeches about the horrors of war are particularly bitter and piercing.) But the combination of the confessional dialogue (“Very well,” Christine admits to Lavinia in the heat of the moment, “I love Adam Brant. What are you going to do?”) and the over-the-top action (murder, betrayal, incestuous lust) strike a contemporary theatergoer as melodramatic at least, if not outright comical. When Christine wishes out loud that her husband Ezra had died in the war, and then broadly hints to her lover that there’s more than one way to skin that cat, the audience giggles.
Edelstein plans to restage this play (with Alexander again as Christine) when he settles in New Haven. It’s possible before then that he’ll be able to adjust the tone of particular scenes to sustain the production’s tragic sweep.
No question he’ll try. That’s another one of Edelstein’s many talents: He’s got the courage it takes to tackle things that, to the rest of us, may seem near impossible.