The 1924 romantic tragedy Desire Under the Elms by Eugene O’Neill had its roots in ancient Greece when Euripides launched his trilogy of plays on Hippolytus.
Euripdes related the tale of Hippolytus, the son of King Theseus born of an Amazon woman he had defiled. That earlier play offended the audience so much because it depicted Phaedra, the wife of Theseus, lusting after Hippolytus. O’Neill knew that such a thing was not shocking enough for the audiences of the 1920s, so he took the tale a step further by adding a deed so dastardly O’Neill’s staging was banned in England and Boston. He claimed the plot came to him in a dream, but perhaps it was a nightmare.
Plato, who lived a century after Euripides, certainly knew of the plays. In the original Star Trek episode Plato’s Stepchildren, Mr. Spock warned in a song “Be watchful of young men in their velvet prime/Deeply they’ll swallow from your finest kegs/Then swiftly be gone, leaving bitter dregs. O’Neill’s Phaedra, named Abbie Putnam, lusts after the Hippolytus character, Eben. O’Neill’s description of Eban depicts him as a young man of 25, “tall and sinewy. His face is well-formed, good-looking, but its expression is resentful and defensive”. In this production by Philip G. Bennett, Oscar de la Rocha embodies this very evocation of the character Eben, which he delivers with devastating finality. Leaving bitter dregs indeed for Abbie, played with heart-wrenching directness by Callie Hutchison, who does a marvellous job of tracking Abbie’s life from a toiling youngster to the madness few but Lady Macbeth are familiar with.
As for the father figure Theseus, O’Neill names him Ephraim Cabot. He is envisioned by O’Neill with a face “as hard as if it were hewn out of a boulder.” In steps the actor John Muller as perfect casting. In a nearly constant rage, Muller makes us feel the power of Ephraim to summon invocations for heaven to pour down retributions against all those around him. This includes two sons from a previous marriage, played by Jorge Taborda and Lance Guzman. Not bad chaps, they lust not after another man’s wife but rather gold from Californi-A, as they pronounce it. For the play is set in the gold rush days of 1850.
The static tableau that ends this production was a perfect evocation of mimesis, in this case an instantiation of the Stanislavski-inspired ideal of stage acting as sculptural form. This actually takes us full circle, as the story of Hippolytus and Phaedra was represented in sculpture by the ancient Greeks. A suitable ending to this dramatic play.
Kudos also to Guzman and Taborda as stage managers of this production, with light and sound operated by Conlan Salgado. All those mentioned are students in the Bennett Theatre Lab & Conservatory in Tucson.
Desire Under the Elms will be performed through March 15 at the Scoundrel and Scamp Theatre. Visit this website for tickets: BennettTheatreLab.com