Target Margin Theater’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra signals its nonconformist nature by having its audience to gather outside the Abrons Art Center, packed together like rush-hour travelers. The production, which is part promenade, rejects the usual, classical interpretation of O’Neill’s trilogy, which has often proved difficult to pull off. But director David Herskovits, in his progressively exhilarating realization of Mourning Becomes Electra, comes close to throwing off the curse.
At the start of the play, a white-haired woman (Mary Neufeld) who plays Seth Beckwith, the gardener, stands up on the concession table, which now finds itself transformed into a town crier’s podium. The declamation that follows—Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address—seems to capture the essential beauties and imperfections of Herskovits’ take on O’Neill’s play cycle. At its best, the performance waxes psychological, teasing apart a great writer’s mind games and schemata. And also, much like Lincoln’s quietly bombastic lines about a united America, the production is almost always concise and probing in its dialogue, be it about death, war or love. In true O’Neill fashion, however, it sinks now and then—5 hours is quite a demand on any audience—but is redeemed by the glories of the plays’ intense psychodrama.
O’Neill takes as his starting point Aeschylus’s Oresteia, a trilogy of plays about Agamemnon, a veteran of the Trojan War, and his wife, Clytemnestra, who brings about his demise to secure her own happiness and that of their son, Orestes. Mourning Becomes Electra is about the Yankee warrior Ezra Mannon, a veteran of the American Civil War, and the various intrigues that his wife Christine conceives to end his life and begin anew with her son Orin by her side. But there the similarities end. The Mannons’ story is that of a family whose penchant for egoism, desire and melodrama threatens the very goals they hope to achieve.
The Greek plays and O’Neill’s plays also differ at one focal point: Lavinia Mannon (Eunice Wong), the daughter of Ezra and Christine, and the soul of the production. Her conflicted desire for a suitor (Captain Adam Brant, played by Satya Bhabha) who comes calling at the Mannon mansion pushes her onto a near-Shakespearean destiny of revenge and tragedy. When she discovers an illicit relationship that could threaten the sanity and well-being of her beloved father Ezra (again Bhabha), she unleashes her psychological torment on her mother Christine (Stephanie Weeks) and even her brother Orin (also Bhabha). Wong imbues Lavinia with a staggering resolve and vulnerability. Her silence is, at times, enough to carry the intense drama and provocation of a confrontational scene. She glides along in her black lace gown, as if supported by God and the Mannon ancestors in her constant mourning (costumes are by Kaye Voyce). She takes to death like Persephone did in the old Greek stories: with reluctance yet an acceptance of her destiny. Bhabha, in tripartite perfection, enlivens Orin, gives a dashing flair to Brant, and scowls away as Ezra. His battles with Weeks, and especially Wong, are wondrous in their unrelenting intensity.
Herskovits says that “early on we carefully walked through the play and staged a version of each scene that observed every one of O’Neill’s famously exacting stage directions… But you won’t see that play.” This striking admission of creative license mostly works. But in this minimalist realization of Mourning Becomes Electra, Herskovits and scenic designer Lenore Doxsee perhaps take their irreverence a little too far. The worst of visual aberrations sits on stage for a good deal of the five hours: a standing gray cardboard structure crowned with gaudy, glittering, pink fans, roughly painted in white and gray. A large portrait of old Ezra scowls from above, while backstage workers routinely enter and exit the stage, carting off benches and chairs with no apparent visual objective.
When Kristen Calgaro, playing the Mannons’ pretty neighbor Hazel Niles, swears and backtracks to another spot on the stage as if she had erred in hitting her actor’s mark (she mutters, “Cut me off, fuck… wrong place” before scampering upstage right), the effect is that of humorous irreverence rather than a disregard for stagecraft. Still, the resulting artificiality of the players’ movements grates on the eyes after a while. Upstage and downstage movements seem occasionally pointless, even alienating. Do they know where they’re going? We wonder. Perhaps that’s the point.
At any rate, any imbalance in the visual delicacy of O’Neill’s stagecraft is compensated for by sublime acting and the knotty business of the characters’ schemata. It all comes to a head in the last hour, with the audience seated onstage (after trooping up to the balcony for the first act, and moving down to stage-level for the second act) a hair’s breadth from the players. The melodrama of Herskovits’ Mourning Becomes Electra doesn’t let up even in these dying moments, and for good reason. Wong and Bhabha dominate in their performances. They are the ones who come closest to reconciling their relationship, but an ever-present fear of death, that memory of a gliding black gown, thwarts them. Mourning, it seems, well suits the Mannon tribe, and highly becomes Target Margin’s must-watch production.
Target Margin Theater’s Mourning Becomes Electra runs through May 20 at Abrons Art Center (466 Grand St., Manhattan). Performance times vary: May 12 at 4 p.m.; May 13 at 5 p.m.; May 14 at 2 p.m.; May 17 at 3 p.m.; May 18 at 4 p.m.; May 19 at 5 p.m.; and May 20 at 2 p.m. Tickets, priced $45–$75 including a light meal, can be purchased by calling (212) 352-3101 or visiting abronsartscenter.org.