by Hugh Hunter
Quintessence is ending its fourth season with a vigorous revival of “Mourning Becomes Electra” (1931) by Eugene O’Neill. It is an ambitious undertaking that runs for four hours (including three intermissions). But it held my attention and was warmly received.
“Electra” is loosely based on the “Oresteia” trilogy by Aeschylus, in which Agamemnon is murdered by his wife and then avenged by his children. Set in New England at the end of the Civil War, the wealthy Mannon family replaces the House of Atreus.
Despite its classical structure, “Electra” is awash in influences nearer to home. Freud’s psychic forces replace the powers of the Greek gods in determining fate; underlying allusions to the idea of original sin abound, and there are repeated romantic references to the South Pacific islands as a cure for all that ails you.
But the real villain of the piece is American puritanism. The Mannon mansion was built to erase a sexual scandal. But the building turns into a spectral monument that enshrines family perversions, and the daughter grows up to unwittingly take the place of the mother she so passionately hated.
“Electra” clobbers you over the head with its constant invocation of Freud’s Oedipus complex. Time and again O’Neill has to rescue his own play with his gift for dramatic staging. Director Alexander Burns and his talented cast make the most of it.
With its aura of fallen grandeur, the shell of old Sedgwick Theater is the perfect venue for the show. The Mannon mansion so viscerally dominates the stage, you half-believe the commoners who think it is haunted. Sound effects (original music by Steven Cahill) and dramatic lighting (John Burkland) enhance its spookiness.
You know evil is afoot because you see, hear and feel it. In the bedroom scene Robert Jason Jackson (Ezra Mannon/Agamemnon) tries to rejuvenate his marriage with a touching mix of pride and humility. The brilliantly complicated response of Janis Dardaris (Christine Mannon/Clytemnestra) alone is worth the price of admission.
Josh Carpenter (Orin Mannon/Orestes) brings his oedipal character to life with expressive stage movement. And Mattie Hawkinson (Lavinia Mannon/Electra) has a wonderful, mirror-like look on her face that combines shrewdness and resolution with a lack of insight as to her own fate.
Eugene O’Neill thought about writing a long series of plays about a family that would begin in 1800 and bring out the interplay between family legacy and personality. “Electra” is probably as close as he came to doing it, and Quintessence shows that the play can be powerfully staged.
No one can say “Electra” lacks action. Beyond its huge events you can also see the play as a metaphor for the mystery of personality. As teenagers most of us nurse grievances about our parents only to discover later on that in key ways we are just like them.
Quintessence is located at the Sedgwick Theater, at 7137 Germantown Ave. “Mourning Becomes Electra” will run through April 27. Reservations at 215-987-4450 or online at www.quintessencetheater.org.