O'Neill's Highly Charged `Electra'By Lloyd Rose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 7 1997; Page D01
The Washington Post
In his production of "Mourning Becomes Electra," which opened last night at the Shakespeare Theatre, Michael Kahn calls up once more the combination of stylization and raw force that has brought his productions of Renaissance classics to towering life. Eugene O'Neill's wildly Freudian, wildly personal epic is rich with the excess only genius is rich enough to produce: Maybe Kahn's major achievement is that he wasn't afraid of it. Here, as he's done before, he makes directing the near-impossible look so easy that you almost wonder why the gigantic, difficult play isn't done every few years instead of every 40.
The first of O'Neill's dramas to be critically hailed as "great," "Mourning" was originally three plays, in which he reset the tragic story of the House of Atreus, the source of much ancient Greek tragedy, in 19th-century New England. The choice was risky to the point of foolishness, and the resulting play has all the hubristic power of O'Neill's daring along with his characteristic bludgeoning, emotional fury. As brilliantly designed by Ming Cho Lee, the palatial house of the Mannon family is a high, cold, neoclassical tomb. Overshadowed by this symbol of their past, the Mannons struggle to escape into life, but their petty passions aren't strong enough.
Kelly McGillis is the spinster Lavinia Mannon, who loves her Civil War general father, Ezra (Ted van Griethuysen), and hates her sensual, dissatisfied mother, Christine (Franchelle Stewart Dorn), who has taken as a lover Capt. Adam Brant (Brett Porter).
In the Greek original the queen, Clytemnestra, and her lover murdered King Agamemnon on his return from the Trojan War, and the royal couple's son, Orestes, urged on by his sister Electra, killed their mother. This didn't quite fit O'Neill's psychological obsessions, and he shifted things around a bit. In "Mourning Becomes Electra," the Orestes figure, Orin (Robert Sella), is as much a mama's boy as Lavinia is a daddy's girl, and hates his bullyingly masculine father as his sister loathes their amorous mother. This setup has a geometric purity that approaches the lunatic, and O'Neill plays it out with all the rage of his personal madness.
In "Mourning Becomes Electra," the characters' machinations are as tawdry as a nighttime soap opera, the Freud is glopped on extra-thick, and O'Neill makes his points so obviously he risks looking simplistic. But risk -- of the excessive, the ridiculous, the overwrought, the overdared -- is the power that drives O'Neill's dramas. While you're smirking condescendingly at his mistakes, he just roars on past you, unnoticing: He doesn't care. All too soon we realize that O'Neill's simplicity is brutal, his emotionality assaultive, his grip on our throats hard as iron. He doesn't entertain or move an audience, he works it over. And you can't just dismiss him as histrionic, because it's so clear the one suffering the most here is O'Neill himself.
McGillis's repressed, vengeful Lavinia seems a prisoner in her clothes; you're very aware of the actress's size and vitality, her healthiness, and the way in which her life is imprisoning and deforming her. Her face masklike, her voice cool and commanding, McGillis's Lavinia is more than a match for her mother -- something of an achievement, since Dorn plays Christine with insolent, languid command. Unlike the family into which she married, Christine is alive in her body. It's her physical revulsion toward her husband -- which, unusual in a male writer, O'Neill takes seriously -- that sets the tragedy in motion.
As so often in both American pulp and high art, female sexuality is an irresistible destructive force. O'Neill acknowledges Christine and Lavinia's right to satisfy their needs, but he also punishes them for doing so. Orin, far from being an Orestian hero, is pinched and small -- the avenger as prig. Sella makes an affecting, scary transformation from a sensi tive boy damaged by his father's ideas of manliness into a rigid, fearful copy of that same father. Van Griethuysen gives the father his full share of humanity without soft-pedaling the old soldier's greedy selfishness.
In smaller roles, Porter plays Brant as a basically decent man playing out of his element, Emery Battis is excellent as the old caretaker of the Mannon place, Ralph Cosham is an amusing drunk, and David Sabin is jocular and disturbing as a drunken sailor who is also a portent of doom. Many of the minor characters serve as a Greek chorus -- a conceit Kahn handles exceptionally well, even finding some humor in the give-and-take of the husbands -- Sabin, Glenn Evans, Donald Neal -- and their wives -- Jennifer Mendenhall and (in two roles) Judithann Simmons. As the sane brother and sister who for a while seem to offer the Mannon siblings a romantic way out of their family trap, Lee Mark Nelson and Michelle O'Neill bring, respectively, moral weakness and moral strength to what could be wanly virtuous roles.
Just as much as the Tyrones in "Long Day's Journey Into Night," the Mannon family is a blueprint of O'Neill's own psyche. Lavinia and Orin are two parts of him, caught eternally in attraction-revulsion for his parents, shying away first from his mother's needy sensuality, then from his father's judgmental selfishness -- panickingly unable to accept the idea that either one is a part of him.
More than any other American drama, "Mourning Becomes Electra" captures a child's fear not merely of turning into his parents but of being dissolved in them, damned by them. Lavinia has inherited her mother's red hair, and once her mother is dead she blossoms happily into a replica of her. But Orin, speaking for O'Neill's Catholic guilt, is unable to live with the consequences of his deed -- tortured by his conscience, he becomes Lavinia's torturer. "Mourning Becomes Electra" isn't a soapy potboiler, it's a vat of lye.
Mourning Becomes Electra, by Eugene O'Neill. Directed by Michael Kahn. Lights, Howell Binkley; costumes, Jane Greenwood; music, Adam Wernick. At the Shakespeare Theatre through June 15. Call 202-393-2700; TTY 202-638-3863.