A beautiful young woman marries an elderly widower only to find herself irresistibly attracted to his twenty-five-year-old son, with whom she begins a torrid affair behind her septuagenarian hubby’s back. Wishing to insure that the old man’s property remains tied to wife rather than son, the ingenious beauty connives to conceive a child with her lover and pass it off as her aged spouse’s. Murder ensues.

No, this is not a classic black and white film noir, though it well could be, with Lauren Bacall or Ann Blyth as the young wife, Edward G. Robinson or Sydney Greenstreet as the husband, and Alan Ladd or Tyrone Power as the son. Then again it might be one of those Oedipal Greek tragedies by Aeschylus or Sophocles or Euripedes and performed in togas with plenty of railing against the Fates.

In fact, however, the play in question turns out to be neither Hollywood-born nor Athens-bred, but rather the product of Nobel Prize winner Eugene O’Neill’s fevered imagination, set in 1850s New England, first staged in 1925, and now revived as the second offering of A Noise Within’s freshman season in their new Pasadena digs.

Directed with considerable flair by Dámaso Rodriguez and performed with plenty of passion by Monette Magrath, William Dennis Hunt, and Jason Dechert as nubile bride Abby, long-in-the-tooth husband Ephraim, and lusty son Eben, Desire In The Elms at A Noise Within is melodrama with a capital M, as meaty and sizzling as an inch-thick steak.

That’s not to say that I’m in love with the play itself. It’s hard to believe that O’Neill penned Desire’s often stilted dialog in the same century as Arthur Miller wrote his wholly naturalistic All My Sons, let alone a mere twenty-two years before the latter debuted on Broadway. Youngest son Eben’s considerably older brothers Peter and Simeon converse in lines like “He hain’t never been off this farm ‘ceptin’ t’ the village in thirty year or more, not since he married Eben’s maw. I calc’late we might git him declared crazy by the court,” which sound clunky and awkwardly expository to this reviewer’s ears. O’Neill even has Peter and Simeon saying lines like “Ay-eh. They’s gold in the West” together in perfect sync, like a 1920s Vaudeville duo. Still, sharper minds than mine have heaped words of praise on the four-time Pulitzer Prize winner, and seen in the context of mid ‘20s America, it’s no wonder that Desire Under The Elms got banned in Boston or that its first Los Angeles cast found themselves arrested for obscenity. If in the words of Donna Summer, you’re “lookin’ for some hot stuff baby tonight,” Desire Under The Elms at A Noise Within will give it to you in spades.

It helps considerably that once that Mutt-and-Jeff fraternal duo have headed off in search of gold in them thar Californy hills, Desire Under The Elms becomes essentially a three-character drama, and that those three characters are played with equal parts fire and ice by a trio of the best actors in town.

With his leonine head and silver mane, Hunt makes for an imposing patriarch indeed, and one any whippersnapper of a son had better think twice about betraying. Dechert, concurrently starring as a valiant young Brit in The Antaeus Company’s Peace In Our Time and StageSceneLA’s 2010-11 Actor Of The Year, shows off his leading man credentials with a combination of movie star looks and award-caliber acting chops. Scenie-winning Best Actress Magrath has simply never been better than she is as third-wife Abby, a New English accent and deeper register revealing such sultry seductivness, it’s no wonder father and son find themselves hooked by her Hitchcock blonde allure. As for sparks, Dechert and Magrath generate them in spades.

Stephen Rockwell and Christopher Fairbanks are folksy and fine as those envious older brothers. Dale Sandlin is a solid Farmer and Sheriff, and ensemble members Patrick Connolly, Diana Gonzalez-Morett, Trudi Knoedler, and Emily Rose McLeon make for festive partygoers celebrating the birth of Ephraim’s (sorry, make that Eben’s) infant son.

Scenic designer John Iacovelli’s terrific set lets us see through invisible walls into Ephraim’s farmhouse, from living area to upstairs bedrooms where considerable lust ignites. Julie Keen’s costumes are splendid period pieces, many of them seemingly worn down through years of washings. James P. Taylor’s lighting design is both subtle and effective. Robyn Taylor’s props look just right for era and locale. Monica Lisa Sabedra merits high marks for her wig, hair, and makeup design.

A stroke of directorial genius has composer/fiddler Endre Balogh performing his original background score live from various points throughout theater, both on set and off. Dialect coach Nike Doukas gives cast members those broad New England vowels that help immensely in transforming them from actors to dramatis personae. Kudos go too to choreographer Justin Eick for his do-si-dos and fight director Kenneth R. Merckx, Jr. for his fisticuffs.

Acoustics in the new Pasadena space remain somewhat problematic, though less so seated close up for Desire than further back for Twelfth Night, and catty-corner seats (pretty much non-existent in Glendale) have some of the best sightlines in the house.

Brian Zimmer is assistant director/dramaturg. Dale Alan Cooke is stage manager, Martin Ruiz assistant stage manager, and Henry Echeverria production manager and technical director.

I’ll have to see more of Eugene O’Neill to understand his position as one of the 20th Century’s most lauded playwrights. Still, whether a justifiable classic or not, Desire Under The Elms kept me fascinated from start to finish, thanks to director and cast. 1850s New England has rarely if ever been more noir or more Greek.

A Noise Within, 3352 E Foothill Blvd, Pasadena.

–Steven Stanley
December 1, 2012
Photos: Craig Schwartz

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