Eugene O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms maintains such unvarying intensity that it poses problems for anyone who tries to stage it. A Broadway hit in the mid-1920s, with Walter Huston as the patriarch Ephraim Cabot, this fire-breathing Freudian melodrama is a recalcitrant little beast, not large and unwieldy like some of O'Neill's later plays, but difficult in its own right. Many of O'Neill's signature themes are here in embryo form, especially when sexual attraction between Eben Cabot and his sultry, calculating stepmother Abbie starts resembling the touching connection between Jamie Tyrone and Josie Hogan in A Moon for the Misbegotten. Desire is studded with passages of raw poetry, but a lot of it is of the, "I love ya, but I hate ya, but I love ya!" school of dramaturgy. Subtle it ain't, and there's not much subtext for an actor to play; the best approach is to go for a kind of unrepentant, forcefulness that rises and ebbs like the sea.
This production, from Chicago's Goodman Theatre, tips its hand as the curtain rises on a bunch of boulders hanging like testicles from the ceiling; also hanging is a house that looks like it could fall and crush the people beneath it at any moment. Gone are the maternal elm trees O'Neill calls for in his stage directions: director Robert Falls and scenic designer Walt Spangler are taking cues from Ephraim's (Brian Dennehy) monologue about how he grew corn from rocks and had to be a hard man to survive. Falls and Dennehy have collaborated on many O'Neill plays, and Dennehy easily turns the evening into a short play about Ephraim. This Ephraim is an almost gleefully mean old man, yet when the old bruiser takes his final shot at God, Dennehy hits a transcendent note of wonder that feels very Irish, very O'Neill.
It falls to Pablo Schreiber and Carla Gugino to carry the play's action, the not particularly plausible animal attraction between stepmother and stepson. Schreiber is so strapping, even hulking, that he looks like he could crush the tiny Gugino with his hand. This mismatch makes them a vivid picture, even when their desperate grappling nearly spills into overheated absurdity. The emotions are so heightened between Eben and Abbie that they often seem like they're going to burst into song, and maybe Desire would feel more at home as an opera, or at least a musical. As if to sate this impulse, Falls plays the Bob Dylan song "Not Dark Yet" while Schreiber strips for a hot and bothered Gugino as she does her laundry. It's a bold choice, and some purists will be outraged (on theater message boards, this production is certainly an "I love ya, I hate ya!" lightning rod), but even if every choice here isn't entirely successful, this Desire Under the Elms is an often-exciting stab at early O'Neill.