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Theater Review: A Tragic Love Triangle Heats Up Firehouse’s “Desire Under the Elms”

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In the blunt, sometimes savage drama of Eugene O'Neill's "Desire Under the Elms" currently playing at Firehouse Theatre, the simple folks of 1930s-era New England farm country don't mince words. Men speak in a clipped vernacular, responding "mebbe" to most questions, commenting on a beautiful sunset with an unpretentious "purty."

When O'Neill, using the Greek tragedy "Hippolytus" as his inspiration, puts these taciturn people into a viselike predicament, the consequences are explosive, resulting in victims you wouldn't necessarily anticipate. Under Josh Chenard's assured direction, this tense family drama plays out in taut, economical scenes on a lovely, almost otherworldly set, designed by Chris Raintree and masterfully lit by Bill Miller, transfixing the audience with near-hypnotic power. While the production can't totally escape the play's melodramatic tendencies, Chenard uses expert stagecraft to elevate the show to elegiac heights.

The director electrifies the impact by trimming the play down to its essential core: the treacherous love triangle that develops between aging patriarch Ephraim Cabot (Alan Sader), his second wife Abbie (Amber Marie Martinez), and his son Eben (Landon Nagel). Well into his 70s, Ephraim returns to the family farm after a long absence with Abbie as his new bride. Eben has just paid off his brothers, Simeon (Chandler Hubbard) and Peter (Adam Turck), in a scheme to take over the farm. Abbie has her own hopes of assuming ownership by giving Ephraim a new heir in the form of a son. Everyone's plans go sideways when passion percolates between Abbie and Eben, tempting each player into making desperate, sometimes deadly, choices.

Eben sits at the nexus of the plot and Nagel portrays him with an angry intensity that also layers in mourning, regret and longing. His tall frame stooped, the actor's angular features are a picture of hardscrabble farm life, but his soft demeanor reflects a doting mother's care. Eben blames Ephraim for working his mother to death, and Nagel seethes with resentment while also pining with loss. In a clever contrivance, Chenard evokes Eben's mom via a haunted kitchen radio, making her spirit a presence even though she's gone.

Sader, who has cornered the grizzled patriarch market on Richmond stages, delivers a blustering, bellowing performance befitting a character who repeatedly hails hardness as his essential trait. He projects a genuine affection for Abbie, though, and for her part, the diminutive Martinez makes a worthy and wily foil for the menfolk. Her trajectory is in many ways the most problematic, and Martinez makes the twists and turns credible if not, in the end, completely convincing.

In addition to cutting out extraneous scenes and updating the play's time frame from 1850, Chenard makes an intriguing, and I would argue, appropriate change to the play's ending. The only misstep in an otherwise exceptional effort is some lack of clarity in the layout of the Cabot homestead, with some scenes playing out in a parlor seemingly disconnected from the rest of the house.

But that is a small distraction amid some very large emotions. O'Neill wrote a meaty play full of hotblooded confrontation where sons brazenly taunt fathers and fathers furiously threaten sons. Chenard and his crew translate a potentially dated melodrama into a vibrant, powerful tragedy as potent as yesterday's headlines. S

"Desire Under the Elms" plays at Firehouse Theatre, 1609 W. Broad St., extended through Nov. 18. Go to firehousetheatre.org for tickets and information.

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