3:39 PM CDT, September 27, 2011
Not since the old Body Politic days has there been this much excitement on the top floor of 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., now known as the Greenhouse Theater Center.
Remy Bumppo Theatre Company's new artistic director, Timothy Douglas, is certainly not coming in quietly. His first show is a full-on, 210-minute version of Eugene O'Neill's epic, fiendishly challenging trilogy, "Mourning Becomes Electra," wherein the great American playwright O'Neill attempted to forge a Civil War-era counterpart of that doomed classical crew known collectively as the House of Atreus, set in New England and substituting all-American Freudian angst for the intergenerational curses of the Greek gods.
When "Mourning Becomes Electra" opened at the Guild Theatre in New York in September 1931, critics wrote about a show that consumed "six hours in the playing." So by those standards, Douglas' version, which uses the adaptation by Gordon Edelstein, is a relatively brisk trot, with a couple of breaks to boot. Still, seeing this is a commitment.
It is, on balance, worth it. You sense the new day at Remy Bumppo right at the top: Douglas has reconfigured the room, eliminating the center seating section and using that area as a playing space. The audience is seated on both sides of action, which plays on a long, rectangular swoop down the center. It is an inspired idea. This has, of late, felt like a dead room, replete with chairs unused and an energy-sapping ambience. For this show, it feels genuinely dramatic. At Monday's opening, the seats were packed and the place was crackling with the kind of energy that helps you forget the threadbare carpet on the stairs.
Douglas presides over a crisp, crystal-clear and quite compelling production that is honest, insightful and exceedingly well-spoken. As productions of this play go, this one is quite overtly neo-classical: the murderous Mannons seem to float around the stage in isolation from each other (Mom offs Dad, son does in his mother's lover, Mom kills herself, et al in the Sophoclean mode).
Movement is spare and words are dispensed with dignity and controlled passion. Kelsey Brennan's Lavinia, quite the formidable internalized character study, wanders creepily around the playing space like a cross between Daphne Du Maurier's Mrs. Danvers. and the ghost of that Body Politic great, James O'Reilly. Scott Stangland, who players Lavinia's tortured brother Orin, captures many layers of repression. Actors listen closely to each other, and if you don't always get every ounce of classical magnitude (O'Neill's Freudian obsession never helps with that), you certainly get gravitas.
Better yet, Douglas manages to stage some of the show's riper scenes with considerable poignancy. The accusatory death of Ezra (powerfully played by David Darlow) is rather moving, when it can easily tip into the absurd. And, in the role of the malevolent Christine, Annabel Armour comes with a pair of eyes that constantly draw you to their complicated center. Although not an obvious casting choice for Christine (Remy Bumppo remains, in essence, a repertory company where regular players are allowed to stretch), Armour reveals not so much the impassioned egomaniac but a desperate woman in crisis, staving off her own demise. It's a very valid choice.
There are times — especially in the third act — where some of the focus and discipline finally sags, when you want the actors to connect more fully on a visceral level. Certainly, the relationship between Christine and her lover, Nick Sandys' nautical Adam, does not feel like the outcome of any grand passion. And ultimately I found it hard to track the complexities of Lavinia's feelings for Peter (played, a little too gently, by the honest Luke Daigle). Ideally, Brennan would better foreshadow her feelings for the guy, if only to reveal her own expediency. As Peter's sister Hazel, Stephanie Chavara has the insouciant energy that cuts through repetition; in more than a few moments, you wish her fellow cast members had just a touch more of her lively irreverence. A touch of self-awareness rarely hurts with O'Neill, especially this O'Neill.
But then that would not be this production, a dignified, full-throated piece of work that reveals Douglas' craft (if not, fully, his sense of humor and absurdity) and his impressive skills at humanistic storytelling.
On Monday, the audience stared out at each other like collective chess players, watching eloquent pieces moving around the board all by themselves, heading toward a Freudian-fated mate of their own creation.
When: Through Oct. 30
Where: Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.
Running time: 3 hours, 30 minutes
Tickets: $30-55 at 773-404-7336 or remybumppo.org
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