Mourning Becomes Electra

Mourning Becomes Electra
a kate west review
by Eugene O'Neil
directed by Geoff Elliott & Julia Rodriguez Elliott
A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd. Glendale 91204
running April 8 -
May 29, 2005; contact (818) 240-0910 or

“Mourning Becomes Electra” by Eugene O’Neil is as darkly oppressive as the tortured author’s life itself. Born in the late 1880’s, O’Neil endured a troubled and unstable home. Unhappy and bitter all of his life, he died in 1953, convinced that life was generally miserable. Adapted with stunning clarity from the Oresteia Trilogy by Greek Tragedian Aeschylus, and as is the case with so many of O’Neil’s works, “Mourning Becomes Electra” is about family dynamics, the burden of which plagued O’Neil all of his life. Set in post-Civil War New England, it tells the story of a doomed family dynasty.

Brigadier-General Ezra Mannon (William Dennis Hunt) comes home from war, only to discover that his wife Christine (Deborah Strang) no longer desires him when she finally confesses that she never loved him and has taken a lover, Captain Adam Brant (Geoff Elliott). Lavinia (Libby West) is the jealous daughter, who, like Electra in the Greek tragedy, plots against her mother (like Clytemnestra) and worships her father (like Agamemnon).

Christine makes the first move by murdering her husband and Lavinia happens to catch her in the act, the daughter’s worst fear come true. Brother Orin (Doug Tompos) comes home shortly after, like his Greek equivalent Orestes, shell-shocked from war and ready to wreak vengeance. Tied to his mother’s apron strings his whole life, he refuses to believe his sister’s account of events, until they actually catch Christine embraced in her lover’s arms.

The resulting tragedy lasts a whopping three hours and forty-five minutes and leaves the audience drained, but never bored. O’Neil knows his stuff. A Noise Within does a competent job with this difficult piece of material. Co-directors Geoff Elliott & Julia Rodriguez Elliott pace the actors well, unfolding the trilogy with heavy but sure hand. Set Designer Michael C. Smith and Costume Designer Julie D. Keen recreate 1880’s New England quite well. The war uniforms look authentic, as do the swirling hoopskirts on the women. The stone-like mausoleum slab in the middle of the stage serves as a constant metaphor of death, easily converted into a cold marriage bed when the occasion arises.

Libby West, as Lavinia, is a bit stiff at first, partly because her character is so tortured and unexpressive. Warming up by the end, Lavinia becomes her mother all over again, with all the fiercely dangerous sexuality. Her black dress in the beginning is later exchanged for the vibrant green colors of her mothers. Doug Tompos is good as the equally suffering brother, becoming convincingly insane by the end.

The supporting cast, love interests Toby Meuli (Peter Niles) and Hazel Niles (Amy Chaffee), are fine, representing a normal, balanced family which is almost sucked into the dreaded darkness of the Mannon family, but thankfully escapes that fate at the end. Deborah Strang, as the domineering matriarch, is strong and expressive, going from a powerful force of nature to a terrified victim of fate.

Like the Furies of Greek mythology, vengeance is exacted with brutal inevitability. No one escapes retribution. The chilling moment at the end, when the sole family heir and survivor is literally entombed in the Mannon household, is well done indeed. Faithful servant Seth (Apollo Dukakis) pounds hammer into window shutters, echoing nails into a coffin and thus we know that justice has been served. The Mannon legacy, rife with haunted memories and a legacy of the doomed can finally be put to rest. The ghosts of the past will be silent.

So if you’re up for almost four hours of heavy drama, know that O’Neil is rarely light, yet always reveals the raw truth of human nature. Be prepared for great insight.

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