‘Desire Under the Elms’ sways at Actor’s Express

One person’s classic drama is another’s histrionic relic. Judging from artistic director Freddie Ashley’s variable production at Actor’s Express, time has not been particularly kind to celebrated playwright Eugene O’Neill’s “Desire Under the Elms” (1924), which is loosely based on the ancient Euripides tragedy “Hippolytus.” Set in 1850s New England, it involves a torrid love triangle of sorts between a domineering old farmer, his much-younger new bride and his brooding son from an earlier marriage. But what might have been provocative nearly 100 years ago feels mostly just overheated now.

O’Neill (a four-time Pulitzer Prize winner) was a masterful craftsman, indeed, and yet Ashley manages to infuse his Express staging with a tangible tension and atmosphere that doesn’t always emanate as effectively from the play itself, at least as portrayed here by an ensemble that ranges from strictly commanding (Tim McDonough as the hardened father, Ephraim) to relatively serviceable (Ryan Vo as the “soft” son, Eben) to sorely miscast (Precious West as the grasping wife, Abbie).

Credit: Casey Gardner Ford

Credit: Casey Gardner Ford

The design team boasts, among other talents, scenic designer Kat Conley. Dividing sections of the audience on either side, her oblong set is also flanked at either end by imposing stone walls, and it places the house’s pivotal parlor — possibly haunted by the spirit of the son’s dearly departed mother — at dead center of the stage. Other valuable contributions include the austere lighting of Joseph P. Monaghan III, and some mournful mood music on occasion (presumably the work of sound designers Chris Lane and Kate Hoang).

One singularly arresting moment employs strobe lights and an abrupt blackout in depicting a murder perpetrated by Abbie. Unless you’re already familiar with the story, whether her victim is Ephraim or her newborn son isn’t immediately clear, and that uncertainty is palpable as she recounts the crime to her young lover. “I killed him,” she confesses. “He’s dead.” But Eben can’t be sure if she’s talking about his father or the infant he likely fathered himself. It’s shrewdly manipulated on Ashley’s part.

Credit: Casey Gardner Ford

Credit: Casey Gardner Ford

Otherwise, their tempestuous romance is the least persuasive aspect of the melodrama — despite a few erotic directorial embellishments: Eben sauntering around the house, topless and in form-fitting underwear, as though in slow motion; and, later, he and Abbie standing on opposite sides of a solitary door separating their bedrooms, breathing heavily and pining longingly for one another.

But their back-and-forth love/hate relationship develops arbitrarily, at best, without sufficient substantiation. In one scene, each of them recoils at the mere sight of the other. In the next, they’re professing mutual infatuation. In periodic emotional breakdowns, Eben is angry and tormented one minute, chipper and “high on life” in the next. Initially, he reports Abbie’s crime to the local sheriff, but before you know it he’s suddenly begging for her forgiveness and assuming part of the blame himself. It’s an affair fueled purely by sexual attraction, not by any deep or soulful bond.

Vo (who previously co-starred in “Hometown Boy” at the Express) is capable enough, but West (whom I only recall seeing before as one of the peripheral muses in Out Front’s campy musical “Xanadu”) seems especially ill-equipped and out of her element. She lacks much grasp of the maturity or vitality the character demands; she’s less cunning or calculating than petulant and pouting, more a flirtatious tease than genuinely alluring or sensual. (Never mind the wholly anachronistic 21st-century hairstyle.)

Their physical interactions may be hot, but most of their impassioned dialogue, however eloquently worded by O’Neill, registers mainly as a lot of hot air.


“Desire Under the Elms”

Through Aug. 28. 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. $20-$38. Actor’s Express (at King Plow Arts Center), 887 W. Marietta St. NW, Atlanta. 404-607-7469. www.actors-express.com.

Bottom line: More overwrought than provocative.