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Arts and Entertainment

A Noise Within Delivers a Passionate Revival of O'Neill's Classic 'Desire Under The Elms'

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Monette Magrath and Jason Dechert in "Desire Under The Elms." Photo - Craig Schwartz
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There's something about a classic play that makes one feel as if the story has always been there, that it's somehow part of the culture's communal memory, a shared cultural history. It doesn't matter if the "classic" was just written a few years ago, like August: Osage County, it just matters that it fits into that aesthetic flow, that it immediately seems as if its always been there, waiting to be noticed. Eugene O'Neill's Desire Under The Elms handily fits into this category, and the current production at A Noise Within, a time bomb of repressed passion and naked avarice under Dámaso Rodriguez's sure direction, reminds us why it's a classic.

Ephraim Cabot (William Dennis Hunt) believes God intends life to be hard, and he approves of that. Life on the farm has already taken the lives of his first two wives, and when he returns home one day with a third, Abbie (Monette Magrath), his eldest sons, Peter (Stephen Rockwell) and Simeon (Christopher Fairbanks), realize their inheritance is gone and decamp for the promise of gold in California. His youngest son, Eben (Jason Dechert), however, thinks the farm is rightfully his and refuses to step aside. Eben and Abbie are initially bitter rivals, but as time passes the two become attracted to each other and fall in love. And then, just when something positive has happened, that's where the tragedy begins.

Magrath is outstanding as Abbie, who not only convinces in the early, cold manipulative scenes and brings her character's passion to hot-blooded life but also makes it clear why Abbie does the things she does. Magrath finds the reality in every scene and this always ups the dramatic stakes--it's a superb performance. Hunt seems perfectly cast as Ephraim, a man thoroughly comfortable with the Old Testament view of the world, and he blusters and declaims heartily. What's more interesting in the performance, though, are the moments where he admits how lost and lonely he feels, and these quieter insights add to the all-encompassing tragedy. Dechert isn't as surefooted as Eben--he spends most of the first act just seeming petulant--but he seems more comfortable with the bigger emotions of the second act and his performance gets stronger. Fairbanks mines some wry amusement from his role, but Rockwell doesn't seem to completely connect with his character and feels a bit passive.

Director Rodriguez realizes that a play like this needs to be larger than life for the full extent of the tragedy to really hit, but that the small details need to smack of reality for the audience to personally relate, and he achieves that tricky balance. The only misstep is the inclusion of a wandering fiddler, which adds very little to the show and is more often an unwelcome distraction. John Iacovelli's two-story set is rustic and spare, but properly evocative nonetheless. Dated or not, O'Neill's play still packs a wallop.

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“Desire Under The Elms” plays through Dec. 18 at A Noise Within. Tickets are available online.