There's no cheating Eugene O'Neill.
That's the main reason we rarely see the Nobel laureate's work in the region. Anyone who has undergone his Long Day's Journey Into Night (last seen here nine years ago) or the titanic Mourning Becomes Electra (last performed locally in 1988) knows that O'Neill demands much from artists and audiences, including the willingness to excavate and confront the darkest truths about his characters and ourselves. He's one of those playwrights that directors and actors tend to avoid in the same way they avoid Shakespeare's King Lear or Ibsen's Hedda Gabler—until they feel they're ready for the challenge.
Under David Henderson's direction, the cast of this revival of DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS at Raleigh Little Theatre was still chipping away at the surfaces of O'Neill's stony characters on opening night, in this tale of forbidden but necessary love on a cold New England farm in the mid-1800s.
In later scenes, Heather J. Strickland and Brian Yandle found the desire, desperation, guilt and compassion in the characters of Abbie, a young woman brought to this loveless place as the bride of flinty patriarch Ephraim, and Eben, Ephraim's youngest son. That's further than Mark Phialas had gotten in the role of Ephraim, or Gus Allen and Aaron Young as brothers Simeon and Peter.
Unwise cuts in O'Neill's script shortchange the tensions building up to Abbie and Eben's tempestuous union and dilute the suspense of a cuckolded, potentially violent Ephraim. The audience's laughter in the last scene indicated something gone amiss in a work that still needed more character development.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Love and Rockets"