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Dennehy shines in Robert Falls' forceful 'Desire Under the Elms'
By Barbara Vitello | Daily Herald Columnist

Brian Dennehy reunites with director Robert Falls for Eugene O'Neill's "Desire Under the Elms," the centerpiece in Goodman Theatre's three-month examination of O'Neill in the 21st century.


Courtesy Liz Lauren

Pablo Schreiber (Eben Cabot) and Carla Gugino (Abbie Putnam) play lovers whose passion destroys their family in Goodman Theatre's revival of Eugene O'Neill's "Desire Under the Elms."


Courtesy Liz Lauren

Boris McGiver, left and Daniel Stewart Sherman play Peter and Simeon Cabot, the brutish and burdened sons of patriarch Ephraim in Eugene O'Neill's "Desire Under the Elms" in a Goodman Theatre revival directed by Robert Falls.


Courtesy Liz Lauren

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Published: 1/30/2009 12:02 AM

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A few weeks ago, Brian Dennehy talked like a man contemplating retiring.

"My time is almost over," he said, responding to a question about his future plans.

On stage at Goodman Theatre, where he stars in director Robert Falls' imposing "Desire Under the Elms," the centerpiece of Goodman's ambitious, three-month salute to Eugene O'Neill, Dennehy performed like retirement was the last thing on his mind.

Clearly in his element, the 70-year-old Dennehy reaffirmed his position as O'Neill's pre-eminent interpreter with an imposing performance as Ephraim Cabot, the flinty patriarch who successfully forged a farm from the unforgiving New England soil and in the process drove two wives to their graves and three sons to desperation. Ephraim is a lonely man "growin' ripe on the bough," who neither asks for pity, nor receives it, whose heart is as impenetrable and unyielding as the stones that surround his house. Dennehy's is a carefully considered performance: robust generally, volcanic when necessary and - in one fleeting moment late in the play, when Ephraim reveals his vulnerability - exquisite.

This latest Dennehy-Falls collaboration pairs grand talent with grand vision. And while I'd argue that Falls' bold concept occasionally eclipses the play's core, his revival of O'Neill's Greek-inspired American tragedy - which his prudent cuts have reduced to an intermissionless 100 minutes - is an uncommonly brisk, immensely satisfying production.

Inspired by the myths of Oedipus and Phaedra, with a nod to Medea, "Desire Under the Elms" is a provocative examination of passion and greed, loneliness and manipulation, all of which is underscored by the deeply rooted need for a place to call one's own.

The story unfolds in the mid-19th century on the farm that the grasping Ephraim (Dennehy) has made flourish through his physical strength and the force of his indomitable will.

But Falls and his accomplished set designer Walt Spangler don't set their production as O'Neill described in his stage notes referring to the titular trees flanking the Cabot farmhouse which "appear to protect and at the same time subdue." Instead, Falls and Spangler replace O'Neill's elms with enormous boulders, a pointed reference to the sense of oppression and isolation that underscores the play. Suspended from above, heaped upon each other in enormous piles, the stones threaten to crush the ill-fated characters who seem to inhabit not a farm but a quarry where prisoners consigned to hard labor break big rocks into little rocks. Falls makes that point explicit with the introduction of Ephraim's brutish sons from his first wife, Simeon (Daniel Stewart Sherman) and Peter (Boris McGiver) who enter yoked like oxen, pulling a pallet loaded with rocks. They along with their younger brother Eben (a vulnerable, conflicted Pablo Schreiber radiating resentment and despair), son of Ephraim's second wife, have spent their lives being bullied by a father they both loathe and fear.

The cracks within this already fragile family unit deepen when Ephraim returns after a two-month absence with his comely new wife, the much younger Abbie (deftly played by "Entourage's" Carla Gugino, expressing her character's sexuality in less primal, but no less potent terms) who clashes with Eben over land both of them claim as their own. Land Ephraim has no intention of sharing with either. As their initial mistrust gives way to passion, the son and stepmother find a bit of solace in each other's arms in a compelling expression of sexual tension that Falls and his cast execute brilliantly.

As resolute and unrelenting as his version of "King Lear" from several years ago, Falls' "Desire" is never less than engrossing. In a production where sound and vision - an overwhelming set; farmhouse looming above the stage; a Bob Dylan tune injected into Richard Woodbury's plaintive, foreboding score - threaten to overshadow the acting, this skilled ensemble maintains their grip.

And no one's grasp of O'Neill is more assured than Brian Dennehy's. His time has most certainly come. The time for him to retire has not yet arrived.

"Desire Under the Elms"

Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago

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Times: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays, through March 1. Also, 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Feb. 10, 17 and 24; no 2 p.m. shows Thursdays, Feb. 19 and 26; no 7:30 p.m. shows Sundays, Feb. 15, 22 and March 1

Running time: About 100 minutes, no intermission

Tickets: $25-$82

Parking: Reduced parking the Government Center lot with box office validation

Rating: For adults; strong sexual content