Native Earth's adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms features fine actors on a rich set, but a new focus on dispossession overlaid on O'Neill's Oedipal themes doesn't quite take root.
Native Earth’s free as injuns is as layered as dramatic productions come. The play is “loosely inspired” by Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms, which itself incorporates elements of the Greek Phaedra myth, and earlier parallels to it from the Biblical Book of Hosea. Beagan’s adaptation, directed by Ruth Madoc-Jones, uses abbreviations of O’Neill’s character names and follows the same plot, though it quickly becomes clear that this play’s characters have substantially different motivations than O’Neill’s. Having familiarized ourselves with O’Neill’s play since watching injuns, we’re still not sure whether a familiarity with the source material is a plus or minus in assaying Tara Beagan’s new play.
injuns opens on Even (James Cade) waking from disturbing dreams, seemingly lying on or in a coffin (we eventually learn it’s his broom closet of a room). He and his two older half brothers, Pete (Ash Knight) and Sim (John Ng), are toiling on the family farm while their three-time widower father is away in parts unknown. None of the three brothers is happy with their lot in life, but they continue to work the farm out of lifelong habit, and a grudging respect for their driven and hardhearted father. Pete and Sim dream of heading West to seek their fortune, but Even, whose mother has died most recently, is obsessed with inheriting the farm; it’s on the ancestral lands of his mother’s people, and he communes with her frequently—her voice echoes in his head in voice-overs by former Native Earth artistic director Yvette Nolan. His brothers have their own complicated relationships with their own deceased mothers, but trace their heritage along patriarchal lines. (The fact that all three sons have different mothers neatly dovetails with the actors’ diverse ethnic backgrounds, and the colour-aware choice of actors adds considerable depth to the cast.)
Into this morass of bitterness and resentment comes Be (PJ Prudat), the much younger new wife of Ephraim (veteran actor Jerry Franken), who returns just as Even seems to have convinced his brothers to take his savings and leave the farm. Prudat’s Be, who initially seems to be a bored seductress who immediately fixes her sights on Even, turns out to be, like Even, a “half-breed,” and a pragmatic survivor who longs to reconnect to the land, if not her people. “The law sees me as white, no matter what I have to say about it,” she complains to him about how she’s been forced to abandon her heritage. The two soon fall deeply in love and lust (Prudat and Cade have played lovers on stage before, in Falen Johnson’s Salt Baby, and their chemistry is palpable), and Be convinces Even that if she bears his child, they can eventually together reclaim the land and start anew. “We’ll make our own ceremony,” she promises him.
It’s a plan which neither seems to feel any moral qualms about, cuckolding the tyrannical head of the house—there’s none of the guilt or shame present in their secret love that O’Neill’s characters suffered. But the jealousy Even feels towards his overbearing father grows worse with the arrival of his baby. He loses his connection to his mother, and in his sullen rage cannot grasp that he has transferred it to Be and his new family.
In the second act, the play’s pacing slows significantly, with Even’s inner turmoil slowly simmering until things come to a head. While Knight and Ng’s presence does help ratchet up the stakes, the actors don’t have much to play; we’re still not quite sure why, apart from petty jealousy of their youngest brother, Pete and Sim don’t take the money and leave. Prudat’s Be seems entirely focused on Even, and her own issues with sharing a bed with the grandfather of her child don’t seem to factor until relatively late in the game.
We’d be remiss in not mentioning the impressive stage and lighting design by Andy Moro, who lights the cavernous space to suggest both small rooms in the farmhouse and the open fields the men toil in, as they track actual dirt across the boards. Our first thought upon entering the Buddies in Bad Times Chamber was, “we’re in the Thunderdome!” But open conflict never quite erupts in the in-the-round space. It’s clear to us that the characters’ fixation on the simple possession of the land doesn’t fill their need for connection and community; the two older brothers never learned the concept of family from their father in the absence of their mothers, and Even struggles to transfer his mother’s unconditional love to another as an adult himself. But it takes a long while to make those points in injuns, especially in the second half. They’re themes we’d like to see more of from Beagan and Native Earth, but perhaps not grafted onto the complex themes already present in O’Neill’s work.