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LA Theater Review

Desire Under The Elms

Jeffrey Hayden reassembles his cast from last year's Fences in an African-American "translation" of Eugene O'Neill's classic play. Charlie Robinson, the brutal father of Fences, now takes on the role of Ephraim Cabot, the tough-minded father of Simeon (Dig Wayne), Peter (Ernest Harden Jr.), and Eben (David Batiste), who usually, and justifiably, refer to their father as "the old devil." While the mean-spirited Ephraim is off looking for a new wife, the two elder sons cluelessly sign away their share of the New England family farm in exchange for the contents of Ephraim's hidden cache that will provide them a stake to get them to the gold fields of "Californ-i-ay."

The surly new wife, Abbie (Nadege August), who looks about 10 years old, is a witchy thorn in the bitter Eben's side. The teenage temptress fans the ember of desire in the younger man while spitefully rejecting his father. When an inferno erupts, Abbie tricks Ephraim into believing her and Eben's baby is his, in an attempt to secure eventual ownership of the farm. The only one who doesn't get it is Ephraim. In Greek-tragedy style, lust, deceit, pride, and greed are murderously punished, making for a particularly heartbreaking resolution.

The sticking point here is the directorial overlay of a New England accent, which is often too thick for easy comprehension. Robinson is richly cast as the crusty farmer, in no way a gentleman, unforgiving in his loveless relationship with his loutish sons. He tends to play into the advanced age of the farmer, which exaggerates the youth of his strutting child bride, who seems way too young to be as sexualized and malicious as the role demands. Batiste has a sweetness that belies the core of Eben's bitterly fierce hatred and disrespect of his father, pitted against his foredoomed capitulation to Abbie's wiles.

Hayden's concept of a black family's circumnavigation of a universal theme is well-justified and creates its own historical relevance. Missing is a directorial unity between the broadly comic beginning, the central melodramatic core, and the muddily slow pace of the post-tragic ending. Charles Erven's simple set is effective, splendid with its operating water pump and working stove; Terri Hung's lighting and Naila Sanders' costumes fill the bill well.

Presented by and at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., L.A. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. (Also Wed. 8 p.m. Jun. 6-27. Sun. 7 p.m. only May 27, Jun. 3 & 24.) May 26-Aug. 19. (310) 477-2055.

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