THEATRE / Taking the branch line: Paul Taylor reviews Lou Stein's production of O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms at the Palace Theatre, Watford

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The Independent Culture
Eugene O'Neill was given to the sort of stage direction that sends scenic departments prematurely grey. Take his stipulations about how the eponymous trees should look in Desire Under the Elms: 'They brood oppressively over the house. They are like exhausted women resting their sagging breasts and hands and hair on its roof . . .' Not surprisingly, there have been productions which have thought it best to dispense altogether with foliage.

Lou Stein's absorbing new staging of this work at the Palace Theatre, Watford settles for a well-judged compromise: fingers of elm stretch out towards the clapboard house in a gesture you could take as one of ambiguous benediction. Below, Norman Coates' evocative design is like a sepia drawing come bleakly to life, capturing in its drained tones and harsh slabs of rock the unyielding stoniness of the Cabots' New England farm - obdurate terrain that has shaped Cabot senior's view of the deity whom he imagines as a grim extension of the landscape. The soft option of fleeing to California, as the older Cabot boys do, would be primal offence against such a Being.

The dialogue may be rich in the clumsy, accidental eloquence of the American venacular, but the story's ancestry is Greek, a reworking of the tragedy of Phaedra and Hippolytos. O'Neill's updatings of ancient myth can have a fatal tendency to come across as soap opera. It's a tribute to the performances here that this risk never even crosses your mind.

James Booth as Ephraim could afford to give stronger hints of the granite-like tyrannical figure the Cabot patriarch must have cut in his prime, before inclinations of mortality started to unman him. But, as the quasi-incestuous lovers - his new, third bride and his youngest son who unite in their hatred for him and their zeal to use up the farm - Sally Dexter's Abbie and Corey Johnson's Eben give off exactly the right charge.

Exuding to a nicety the 'fierce repressed vitality' required of Eben in the stage directions, Johnson also shows you a young man who has been emotionally arrested by the all-consuming desire to avenge his deceased mother, so that he can only swing between infantile sulking and unconvincing vindictive bravado. Radiating an amused, confident sexuality, Dexter instantly recognises in him a soulmate with an equivalent chip on his shoulder and sets about demolishing his natural hostility. The actors movingly show how this love, which begins as a tactic by which each plots to outwit Ephraim and gain sole possession of the farm, matures, through adversity, into a mutual selflessness that would sacrifice more than the rights to this property.

Dexter's performance, excellent throughout, achieves new heights in the scene after she has murdered their baby, the pitious little laugh that escapes from her a hysterical token of the terrible awareness that, in doing what she thought Eben wanted, she has brought disaster on their love. Fluently directed, with switches from outdoors to indoors signalled only by changes of lighting, this revival has both power and integrity.

Booking: 0923 225671

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