“They’s no peace in houses,” says Ephraim Cabot, the rough-hewn, hard-eyed religious patriarch at the center of Eugene O’Neill’s 1924 play “Desire Under the Elms.” “They’s no rest livin’ with folks.”
Set in 1850, “Desire” is a story of religion, forbidden love and tragic family relations based loosely on the Greek myth of Phaedra. The play, rooted in American soil, burns with religion and sexuality, says director Javen Tanner.
“It’s really, yet again, a play in which O’Neill seems to be working out his own relations with his demons and the family ghosts that haunt him,” says Bob Nelson, 70, who plays Cabot.
Nelson terms Cabot “a cranky old guy,” while Tanner calls him a “wilderness prophet.” “The religion burns in him,” the director says. “What’s wonderful about it to me is it doesn’t make him some sort of good person. It doesn’t soften him. As he says many times in the play, ‘God is hard.’ He hardens into it, but religion burns in him.”
Bringing the character to life, with his distinctive regional dialect, is “a delightful challenge,” Nelson says. “There’s a lot to condemn these characters for and less to admire them for,” the actor says.
A rare local production of “Desire,” by Tanner’s Sting & Honey Company, opens Sept. 1, the first theater performance at the new Regent Street Black Box at downtown’s Eccles Theater.
Set in 1850, it’s the story of Cabot and his sons (Daniel Beecher, Cam Deaver and Topher Rasmussen), who want to leave their hardscrabble New England farm. The family comes further undone through the choices of Cabot’s new, younger wife, Abbie (Melanie Nelson).
“She comes into this farm run by men who don’t know how to communicate,” Tanner says. “She’s harder than any of them, with more nerve and more backbone, and she says: This place is mine.”
Beyond the new venue, the show represents something of a full circle for Tanner, the company’s founder and artistic director. Nelson directed and taught Tanner when he was a theater student at Brigham Young University. In 2005, Nelson moved to the University of Utah to head the department where he had earned his doctorate.
“Javen has directed more plays than I have. He’s very experienced,” Nelson says. “I have no trouble whatsoever turning over the reins to a qualified, sensitive director like Javen.”
In ensemble roles, the cast also includes Tanner’s daughter, Rain, and several current and former students at Sandy’s Waterford School, where Tanner heads the theater department.
Tanner finds the power of theater rooted in ritual, and he is exploring those moments in O’Neill’s writing. “He places specific moments to the play — that rise out of realism — into a ritual place,” Tanner says. “I take those cues and really push those moments into the ‘anti-real.’ By ‘anti-real’ I mean that you push into realism and then you go beyond it into something transcendent.”
One such moment, for example, is when the 70-something Cabot begins to dance at a party he throws to welcome his newborn son. “He pushes everyone else aside, and he goes to this very wild place,” Tanner says.
Another such moment happens in the family’s parlor, when two characters, haunted or blessed by the memory of Cabot’s dead wife, have a fateful encounter that veers the story into the territory of tragedy.
Speaking of full circles, the role has given Nelson a chance to again delve deeply into the richness of O’Neill’s work, which he studied in graduate school in the early 1970s under U. professor Harold Folland.
“Having read all his plays, his plays play better than they read,” Nelson says. “They are a difficult read, often, but a company that really trusts the script, trusts the text, finds that O’Neill had a great theater sense. And the plays play surprisingly well.”
‘Desire Under the Elms’
When • Friday and Saturday, 7:30 p.m., with 2 p.m. Saturday matinees; also Sept. 7-9 and 14-16
Where • Regent Street Black Box at the Eccles Theater, 131 S. Main St., Salt Lake City
Tickets • $18 at arttix.org or 801-355-2787
Note • Recommended for 14 and older; mild profanity, mature themes