Eugene O’Neill is having a Jerry Springer moment in Janos Szasz’s wild and raw production of the playwright’s overheated “Desire Under the Elms” at the American Repertory Theater. The Hungarian director’s fundamentalist approach is to embrace the nitty-gritty of O’Neill’s over-the-top melodrama that aspires to Greek tragedy — if not opera — by placing the 1850 drama in the landscape of an existential trailer park.
Old Ephraim Cabot (Raymond J. Barry) is a religious fanatic who worked two previous wives to death. His nubile new bride, Abbie (Amelia Campbell), is a white-trash strumpet looking to cash in on the farm. Strapping son Eben (Mickey Solis) lusts after his new stepmom. Then there’s the messy matter of the family inheritance, paternity issues and infanticide.
The stage terrain, so rough the actors wear kneepads, is filled with stones, boulders and coarse gravel. A rusting pickup truck is off to the side, a dirty mattress in a corner. There’s no warm hearth of a New England home here; no lush, looming elms in Riccardo Hernandez’s harrowing set, but rather an upended frame of a dreary house that offers no refuge and a pair of stripped-down trees awaiting their final fall.
The trees aren’t the only things with their outer layers removed. Szasz strips away some of the secondary characters, invents a theme-setting prologue of unnerving bleakness and ends the surprisingly brief (for O’Neill) production with his exposed characters stranded in an isolated wasteland.
To emphasize the relentless, harsh and bitter life — and to test the aud’s endurance — the play’s first 10 minutes are occupied solely with Cabot’s three sons doing nothing but hauling rocks up the steeply raked stage to a stone wall leading nowhere. Once the play proper begins, it’s clear life on the Cabot estate is a continuing variation of this Sisyphean labor.
When the news comes that the fanatical 76-year-old father has taken a new bride, two of the sons (Shawtane Monroe Bowen and Peter Cambor) high-tail it for the California gold rush. Half-brother Eben remains to fight for the farm he believes was stolen from his late mother. But the acorn doesn’t fall far from the elm, and soon he is in the ravishing and ravaging embrace of his new stepmother and plotting against Pa.
In this environment thick with repression, oppression and zealotry, Szasz’s primal-scream approach, weirdly enough, seems not only apt but necessary. Just getting through O’Neill’s dense, repetitive and archaic language is a challenge for any production. (“I got afeerd o’ that voice,” says Ephraim, “an’ I lit out back t’hum here, leavin’ my claim an’ crops t’whoever’d a mind t’take ’em. Ay-eh.”) Somehow even the another-world vocabulary works in this low-down and elemental setting.
The actors all go for broke with perfs that are highly stylized but rooted in their characters’ emotional truths. As vigorously played by Barry, Cabot is a mad stallion, driven by a terrorizing religious fervor that follows a cruel and callous god. Solis effectively plays son Eben as born torn and tormented.
But it’s Campbell’s driven Abbie that is the revelation. Her dirt-poor, deep-seeded hunger for a home is breathtaking in its fearlessness and in her silent and not-so-silent rage. Amazingly, she manages to make this very desperate housewife not only sympathetic, but understandable.
Production is enhanced by Christopher Akerlind’s cold winter shadows and David Remedios’ disorienting sound design that makes the setting even more inhospitable. But it is Szasz’s startling imagery, staging and ability to elicit such brave and powerful perfs that stays with you long after the last stone is turned.