A teacher of mine used to ask, “How do you tell a complex story?” The answer: “as simply as possible.” Mourning Becomes Electra, which opened on Monday by the Remy Bumppo Theatre Company, the impossible play, is an update of the Greek three-volume saga The Oresteia set against the American Civil War, wrought with Freudian ideology, and twisted by the bizarre, conflicted mind of titan playwright Eugene O’Neil—about as convoluted as it gets—but director Timothy Douglas attacks it with beautiful, human simplicity. The story is crisp, clean, and specific; all the actors need to do now is take off the breaks.
If you know the story of the Curse of the House of Atreus coming in, you’re in good shape. Ezra Mannon (Agamemnon) comes back from the war, his wife, Christine, wants revenge for years of loveless, abusive marriage, his daughter, Lavinia will stop at nothing to protect her father, whom she loves more than anyone, and expose her mother, whom she despises. Cue dead bodies.
This story could so easily devolve into a pack of characters flailing around in vague, ungrounded cruelty and misery--wait, isn't that what Greek tragedy is? Add to that O'Neil's obsession with Freud--bring your textbook and you can follow along during lines like when Christine Mannon says to her daughter, "You've treid to become the wife of your father and... you've always schemed to steal my place!" Start to understand why this is an impossible play? Fortunately, when O'Neil isn't paying homage to Freud's so-called brilliance, he's eerily precise with his observations and his words are arresting.
The power of Douglas’s production is the focus on the human struggles behind the intellectuality and Greek bushwa. Most of the acting is just dead-on in capturing what these people are going through and how they’re trying to move their lives forward. It strikes me that what’s really going on here is that these characters feel deeply betrayed and want love. How funny that they all yearn after a paradise—The South Sea Islands, which they constantly talk about—where they can love free of guilt and the past, a paradise that is fundamentally unattainable. Even if you get a glimpse of it, as Captain Brant, and later Lavinia both do, something calls you back to reality, and reality is deeply, deeply flawed. And it won’t leave you alone.
The characters won’t leave each other alone either. The all-out duel between mother and daughter is the engine moving the play forward until the third act. Kelsey Brennan’s Lavinia is absolutely unyielding in pursuit of justice for her father. I love how naïve Brennan’s Lavinia really is though. She has a hold that’s clumsy at best on the heartbreak she feels from Captain Brant’s betrayal. Her grief leaks out side by side with her anger as she relentlessly presses the attack on her mother. Annabel Armour plays the mother, Christine Mannon, and gives a formidable display of manipulation. Don’t you dare believe that she doesn’t want her husband dead from the beginning. Armour’s Christine is not evil at all, but desperate to escape her marriage to a cruel man she wishes she never loved, and get back all the love he never gave her from Captain Brant. The most poignant scene in the play comes when her husband, Ezra, played by David Darlow, comes back from the war a changed man, resolved to give his wife all the love he has deprived her of. It’s heartbreaking to watch him make this overture, fail miserably, and then try to retain some dignity. Ezra’s inability to express feeling is nicely countered by Christine’s other lover, the romantic, honorable Captain Brant, played by Nick Sandys, whose love (whether for women or for ships) is as palpable as his self-loathing.
Douglas staged the play in alley-style with audience on both sides of the playing area, which really activates the space, even though his staging is full of stillness and pent-up energy. The rest of the set leaves something to be desired. The columns don’t do enough to stand for the larger-than-life Mannon Estate, which takes on several different identities over the course of the play. The set is dominated by a larger than life painting of Ezra Mannon—because Giant Portraits Become Agamemnon—which strikes me as a clichéd trope that doesn’t insert the patriarch’s undying presence into the setting in the right way. It’s also a little ridiculous when the actors try to talk to it.
Some credit goes to Douglas for mincing the thirteen-act behemoth down to 210-minutes, but it could still lose at least 10 minutes. The pace in the first two acts is mostly spot on, and really absorbing. The third act drags, perhaps because it is invaded by Scott Stangland’s flat and unconvincing Orin. O’Neil didn’t do Douglas a favor, either; he wrote The Haunted as a meditation on events that have already happened, and there’s little forward motion. Brennan tries valiantly with Lavinia to escape and move her life forward (and the action of the play). “I forgive myself”—she says. Right now, though, there’s still some drag. Some of the actors don’t seem to trust themselves with O’Neil’s grail quite yet, and they seem to be holding back. The specificity is all in place and they’ve done their work beautifully, I want them to let it go and not control each of the moments so much! That will hopefully happen naturally as the run progresses and they get more comfortable. Right now, it doesn’t quite hit you, but it won’t take much for their performances to raise their emotional fists and sock you in the gut.
This is Douglas’s first show as the new artistic director of Remy Bumppo, and he has shown himself to have great curiosity for going below the surface, the courage to make simple, human, specific choices, and the willingness to take on a serious challenge.
Electra runs at the Greenhouse Theater Center from September 21 – October 30. You can find tickets at www.remybumppo.org, or if you don't do technology, by calling 773-404-7336. Check out the “Between The Lines” conversation about the play with Douglas and Gordon Edelstein, the adaptor on October 15 at 1:30.