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Julia Course as Abbie Putnam and Tom McCamus as Ephraim Cabot in Desire Under the Elms.David Cooper/Shaw Festival

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  • Title: Desire Under the Elms
  • Written by: Eugene O’Neill
  • Director: Tim Carroll
  • Actors: Julia Course, Johnathan Souza, Tom McCamus
  • Company: Shaw Festival
  • Venue: Studio Theatre
  • City: Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
  • Year: To December 12, 2021

Desire Under the Elms, a 1924 Eugene O’Neill play now being resurrected by the Shaw Festival, may not land on most lists of ghost stories to revisit this time of year, but maybe it should.

It certainly contains the creepiest scene of semi-supernatural lovemaking ever penned by a playwright.

We’re in a New England farmhouse in 1850. Eben Cabot (Johnathan Souza) and his father Ephraim’s new wife, Abbie Putnam (Julia Course), are down in the parlour that has been sealed off since Eben’s late mother’s body was laid out there.

Eben is once again resisting his sexual attraction to his step-mother – until an intervention by his mother’s spirit, represented throughout the play by what O’Neill described in his stage directions as the “sinister maternity” of the elm trees that smother the farmhouse.

“Maw! Maw! What d’ye want? What air you telling me?” Eben cries.

“She’s tellin’ ye t’love me… Can’t ye feel it? Don’t ye know? She’s tellin’ ye t’love me, Eben!” Abbie replies.

What delicious melodrama! What maddening dialect!

Ontario’s major theatre companies that recycle old plays we call classics have long resisted all but the most naturalistic works by Nobel-winning playwright O’Neill.

Long Day’s Journey Into Night is a great play, for sure, but I’ve hungered for the Shaw or Stratford Festival to tackle a more expressionistic play of his like Desire Under the Elms inspired by Euripides’ Hippolytus and infused with the spirit of August Strindberg – for a long time.

Desire Under the Elms, originally programmed for the summer of 2020 rather than Halloween 2021, has gone through three directors from conception to production because of the pandemic.David Cooper/Shaw Festival

I can’t recall (or find on Google) who first wrote or said that great American plays are all about real estate – but Desire Under the Elms is the urtext in that regard.

It begins with Eben and his two older brothers, Simeon (Kristopher Bowman) and Peter (Martin Happer), awaiting the return of their aging, tyrannical father Ephraim (Tom McCamus) from a mysterious trip. All three put in back-breaking work every day to maintain the family farm in hopes of splitting it three ways one day.

Once Simeon and Peter realize a new, young wife is coming back with Ephraim, however, they finally give up – and head for the West Coast and the gold rush. Eben stays behind, however, having hatched a plan to gain control of the farm he believes was stolen from his late mother by his father.

Everything is perverted by lust for land in O’Neill’s play – as you might well argue everything still is in North America. Families tear themselves apart for a plot of dirt, and love becomes questionable or corrupt.

In this production of Desire Under the Elms directed by Tim Carroll, Bowman, Happer and McCamus expertly give the kinds of performances you might expect with this type of writing – hair-raising, foot-stomping, larger-than-life.

Souza and Course, on the other hand, mainly speak their lines in an understated manner that strips it of both raw emotion and affected accent. O’Neill has been much criticized for having a “tin ear” and this is an intriguing new way to experience his dialogue.

The detached, distanced style makes it feel like there’s something pure and timeless about the relationship that develops between Eben and Abbie, even if they do first consummate it in a doubly incestuous threesome with a ghost. (And things only get more disturbing from there.)

Carroll’s production is full of curious contrasts. The matter-of-fact way he cuts between scenes seems at odds with movement director Alexis Milligan’s embroidered choreography.

The swooning cinematic underscoring by Claudio Vena clashes with the symbolism of Judith Bowden’s evocative set, which presents not the elms of the stage directions, but a towering piece of wood that’s part gallows, part Christian cross and part driftwood. (Bowden’s stage floor, meanwhile, is made out of planks, doors and windows with secrets underneath.)

Desire Under the Elms, originally programmed for the summer of 2020 rather than Halloween 2021, has gone through three directors from conception to production because of the pandemic – so it’s not totally surprising that the results are a bit choppy, but the unlikely fusion of elements is still fascinating.

To return again to the land, O’Neill was not unaware that the fictional spot he imagined for this play had inhabitants before his settlers arrived. Indeed, Ephraim, when drunk, boasts of killing Indigenous people in his youth – he doesn’t use the term “Indigenous” – before executing a disturbing, frenetic dance. It’s a hair-raising moment chillingly executed by McCamus, demonstrating how land ownership comes with a legacy of violence.

Before Desire Under the Elms starts, the actor Bowman – who is from Northern Ontario and a member of the Haudenosaunee nation – comes on stage as himself to say that the company decided to present O’Neill’s play with its language unchanged because everyone involved is comfortable that audiences will be able to distinguish characters from the artists portraying them.

This is not just a reference to recent controversies over racial slurs in plays, but also to what Desire Under the Elms’ original producers said almost 100 years ago now when persisting in presenting the show. The play, seen as immoral in some quarters, was essentially banned in Boston and, during a run in Los Angeles, all 17 people involved in the production were arrested on order of the district attorney. (Among the play’s opponents were the Ku Klux Klan, who called it “too filthy to [even] be called immoral.”)

Bowman’s statement is also a slippery one: How is adding in a new prologue or cutting text, both of which this production does, different from changing a word? It felt like there was more to this preamble than met the eye, and that turned out to be the case at the end of Carroll’s production – which has a short, sharp, smart kicker that underlines that the play is haunted by more ghosts than just Eben’s ma.

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