REVIEWS AND ABSTRACTS
2. MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA, dir. Jonathan Magaril. The Harvard-Radcliffe Summer Theatre, Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, MA, July 20-31, 1983.
When the cats of Robert Brustein's American Repertory Theatre vacate Harvard's Loeb Drama Center for the summer months, the undergraduate mice have their day—and the day they had with Mourning Becomes Electra, in the "black box" behind the Loeb's mainstage, during the Boston area's hottest July on record, was itself something for the record books. Gone were the evocative Grecian columns of the Mannon house; gone, in fact, were all exterior settings except the last; gone was "Shenandoah"; gone were the Mannon portraits and all but one resemblance between living relatives (Ezra and Adam being played by the same actor); gone were Amos Ames, Louisa Ames, her cousin Minnie, Josiah Borden, Emma Borden, Rev. Hills, Mrs. Hills, Dr. Blake, the Chantyman, Ira Mackel, Joe Silva and Abner Small; and gone were increasing numbers of the audience, especially at the two intermissions mercifully provided in the 3i-hour marathon which seemed, at one performance, to have been survived only by the cast and crew, one dutiful critic avec friend, and a convention of international visitors who, one hopes, knew nothing of the O'Neill original and understood little of what they heard.
Since there was no curtain, the spectator got an immediate inkling, even before the taped disco music that introduced each of the three "acts," that something was ludicrously amiss—if, that is, the star-spangled letters and cartoon figures on the program, and the somewhat incongruous slogan on the posters ("MEET THE MANNONS--AN ALL AMERICAN FAMILY!"), hadn't aroused his uneasiness before entering. Lynn Jeffries' set—the epitome of tacky minimalism—comprised three rooms with no walls between them, but with a few yellow flats at rear and sides, between which characters could enter and exit as though through doors. At our left, a kitchen: a table, four chairs, and a Kelvinator refrigerator with a table radio atop it (yes, something was definitely amiss!). At the center, a small student desk surmounted by a silvery, fluorescent desk lamp (the kind _whose awkward, elbowed arm has aspirations of being a dentist's drill), before which two sofas faced each other with just the ill will that Ezra Mannon would have felt if this were his study! And at the right, a smallish fourposter sans canopy but sporting a jolly blue spread. (And the minimalism grew: for the second "act," the flats and bed were gone; for the third, the kitchen was removed, along with the black coffin which had replaced the sofas at stage-center; and for the last scene (Act Four of The Haunted) everything was removed, effectively replaced by a web of bars and shadows created by lights above the room's grilled ceiling. (Ironically, perhaps, that last scene, when Oren Michels' lighting took over for Lynn Jeffries' grab bag of dormitory goodies, was the best of all.)
But could this have been the legendary House of Mannon? Kelvinators, radios and fluorescence at the end of the Civil War? Well, yes—and no. The Mannon house it was, but the director had chosen to move the play to the end of a different conflict—the Second World War—which we learn from the first voice we hear, a radio newscaster (hence the radio sur le fridge), who informs his Connecticut audience that a bomb just dropped on Japan has brought the war to an end. Would it had brought the play to an end (I almost wished the bomb had fallen on this fictional Connecticut!): it would have spared us innumerable incongruities. Not just temporal ones, like Adam Brant's 1945 idea of settling an affaire d'honneur with a duel (incongruous surely, in 1945, for anyone except a clipper skipper); but many later and totally inexplicable ones, like several characters' comments on the appearance of the dead Ezra Mannon as they stare down at the solid, opaque lid of his closed coffin! (And we know it's closed: Orin had banged his fist on it shortly before!)
Why the temporal transplantation? We've learned from many modern Shakespearean productions that such tampering can, if skillfully handled, have two values: it can suggest the universality of the story and characters, and it can make the dramatized conflicts more accessible to contemporary playgoers who are ignorant of history and leery about "the classics." Indeed, O'Neill's trilogy had itself been a masterly act of transplantation. But in this instance there was no new illumination, and the play, which was already a step down from its Aeschylean prototype, sank to the level of a semi-serious sitcom. (One assumes that the choice was dictated by the production's miniscule budget.)
Take Lavinia. O'Neill's heroine, when first seen, is dressed in black, looks older than her twenty-three years, is stiff of movement and grim of speech, and consciously avoids any "feminine allurement" in the mask-like expression of her face. But the Lavinia of Amy Brenneman, who is the first character we meet in this pared-down production, looks younger than her years. Seated at the kitchen table, dressed in a white blouse, beige bermudas, white bobbysocks and loafers, she describes, in an interpolated speech, the members of the family by likening them to a group of utensils that lie before her: a large metal peppermill with the mien of a Teutonic helmet (Ezra), a small glass salt shaker (Orin), a wooden rolling pin (Christine), and a knife (herself). Clever (except for the fear it aroused that we were in for 3½ hours of story theatre), but wrong. Lavinia holds things in; she keeps as tight a rein on her feelings as on her hair; she would never treat her troubles with sardonic wit. (And certainly, even in soliloquy, she would not resort to visual aids!) Where was "the pride of the Mannons," of which Vinnie has more than her share? Sunk, alas, to puling petulance, to a gawky Frankie Addams tomboyishness, which Ms. Brenneman accentuated with a mélange of early-adolescent ticks—rubbing her nose with the back of her hand, digging one foot into the floor while standing awkwardly on the other, etc.
Still, it was Lavinia who saved the show. As she changed from boy-girl to woman, and from herself to a reincarnation of her mother, she completely won us over. Granted, it was not O'Neill's Lavinia, but it was an ultimately moving portrayal that earned our full sympathy when, in the last scene, she announced her retirement from the world. None of the other performers brought their characters to more than two-dimensional life. Christine (Debbie Wasser) was a hip-swinging hussy, given to stomping loudly about in her high heels and swallowing the ends of sentences; effective in her fiery confrontations with Lavinia, but hardly in character when required (evidently in an attempt to bring back the "good old days") to lie on the kitchen floor and help Orin try a hand-stand on her upraised arms. It cannot be denied that Ezra and Adam (both played by Benajah Cobb) looked alike, but neither's death came as anything but relief, and Cobb was doubly ill-served by costume designer Anne Higgins: Skipper Brant wore the most wrinkled white shirt I have ever seen, and General Mannon's army jacket was totally devoid of insignia or medals, making the man a poor second to the opening scene's imposing peppermill. Orin (Alek Keshishian) wore no head bandage (though his silly grin at arrival suggested internal injury!), and his whining quickly cloyed; but he made believable the slow descent to suicide of a boy whose disease, spawned by the war experience, is exacerbated by the troubles he finds back home. Peter and Hazel Niles (Ted Osius and Maud Winchester) had an Osmond Family sweetness (but O'Neill's to be blamed for that; and how could normality look otherwise when juxtaposed against the madness of the Mannons!), though Ms. Winchester brought another dimension to Hazel when she stalked Lavinia amid the shadows of the trilogy's last scene. As for Seth Beckwith--well, what can one say when a "man of all work" of 75 turns out to be a female maid in her 20's—especially when she has the reddest hair in the cast and the closest of all to O'Neill's description of Mannon tresses? Holley Stewart did what she could with an earthy gardener turned solemn soubrette—though, unless "Seth" is a diminutive of Samantha, the sudden fidelity to the original was a surprise in a production that took such liberties everywhere else.
The glowering family portraits, for instance. There were none. In their place, on a metal catwalk high above the rear of the stage, we had life-size cutouts of black-and-white photographs of the actors—just Abe and David Mannon at first (both "played" by Mr. Cobb), the number growing as deaths occurred in the narrative. The device was effective, especially when family members addressed them from below; but it was jarring when a stagehand carried on and deposited Orin's cutout immediately after his suicide—and one wondered how many of the Mannons were worthy of posthumous ascent.
Naturally, a production limited till near the end to a tripartite interior is in trouble when the wharf-and-shipboard scene arrives in the fourth act of The Hunted. The solution here attempted was to have Lavinia and Orin swing open two massive doors at the rear of the central study and eavesdrop on the conversation of Christine and Adam, who are "discovered" in the shallow space beyond. Mention had of course been made of Adam's ship, moored in East Boston; and the scene is too integral to be deleted. But because we have never previously left the Mannon house, because we witness the door-opening, and because no nautical props are provided, an uninformed spectator could easily assume that the adulterous lovers have been caught on the porch, and that Adam, when he is shot offstage by Orin, has attempted a getaway through the back yard! Of such stuff are nightmares made.
I'd long felt that any production of a great play, however amateurish or manipulative it might be, and however limited its technical resources, could provide some illumination—some insight into a character, a relationship, a conflict, that the reader-spectator had not discerned before. I was wrong. All I learned from this production was that, unless its characters are played in the grand manner, and unless they are separated from us by a period of more than forty years, Mourning Becomes Electra becomes tedious and bizarre. For that lesson at least, and for Amy Brenneman's Lavinia, I am grateful.
—Frederick C. Wilkins
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