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— On paper it looked like a lock. The same Cygnet Theatre team that did award-winning work with Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof last year -- director-scenic designer Sean Murray, actors Jim Chovick, Jessica John, and Francis Gercke -- rejoined to produce Eugene O'Neill's breakthrough tragedy, Desire Under the Elms (1924). In some ways the plays are similar: totalitarian fathers, dysfunction abounding, concerns about property, and language galore: Williams's painterly poetic flights; O'Neill's linear, frontal salvos.

Cygnet's opening-night performance, however, was strangely flat. The acting, if you don't count fluctuating New England accents and fussy, unmotivated movement, was consistent but consistently restrained and lacking O'Neill's hallmark. The critic George Jean Nathan, his lifelong friend and advocate, said the one thing O'Neill's plays had, even the flops, was "size." The characters never express mundane emotions. Often echoing those in Greek tragedy, O'Neill wrote his people large. They're possessed. But not by demons. There's no room for demons in these tormented psyches.

The road to tragedy leads through the Slough of Melodrama. Possibly to avoid the purple patches lurking in O'Neill's script, or to make them seem more human and believable, Cygnet Theatre has toned down the characters' epic intensities. The language still crackles and burns. But the people speaking it don't fill the words with fire.

Some of the production's best moments are unspoken. Murray uses stage pictures to show daily life and the passage of time: rocks getting lugged here and there (with the suggestion of Sisyphus); Abbie, married to a man twice her age, sewing, or sweeping a floor, and beginning to have eyes for young Eben, her husband's son.

The set, wooden planks and two platforms, lit evocatively by Eric Lotze, conjures the hardscrabble New England farm built, a rock at a time, by Ephraim Cabot, the crazed-bitter patriarch who, O'Neill slyly suggests, is a member of one of New England's most landed families. Combined with Jeanne Reith's homespun 1850 costumes, coffee browns and dusty beiges, the production has a rustic, sepia look.

But even the set has shrinkage. The house and the famous hovering elm trees (that O'Neill wanted to show a "sinister maternity" and a "crushing-jealous absorption") are reduced to dollhouse size in the rear.

"Sinister maternity"? O'Neill also wants the trees to "brood oppressively...like exhausted women" over the stage (and, due to the elms' contact with people, an "appalling humanness"). O'Neill wrote more stage directions than almost any other playwright. He filled them with projections of his conflicts and pain. He was "an emotional hemophiliac," writes his biographer, Louis Shaeffer, "his wounds, his grievances, would never heal."

O'Neill wanted Abbie, the sensual, 35-year-old woman who marries Ephraim, to be a Freudian icon: "a horribly frank mixture of lust and mother love" (she even tells Eben that she will be his new "Maw"); and O'Neill wants Eben, who's maybe five years younger than Abbie, to be "thunderin' soft" but with a "fierce, repressed vitality."

The father, the son, and the father's new wife form an Oedipal triangle. But what O'Neill wanted over-the-top explicit -- "appalling humanness" -- Jessica John and Francis Gercke downplay; they stress the passions but relegate the Freudian material to subtext. This is admirable, Honest Acting 1A. But to reach the tragic stature the play demands, they must loosen the psychological tourniquet.

It would also help if the characters were more frank about their greed. Property and securing the future obsess them all. It's in the air. O'Neill chose 1850 for a reason: "gold fever" drew tens of thousands of 49ers west, often abandoning homes and families for that One Big Chance. Among those that remained, O'Neill suggests, many caught a fever of selfishness. They don't love. They can't. They're too caught up with ownership.

Ephraim's other sons, Peter and Simeon, are headed west ("Simon Peter" was a rock; when it comes to ladling out obvious symbolism, O'Neill never skimps). John Garcia and Craig Huisenga play them as antsy bumpkins. What they do, they do well. But they're comic characters, and their speeches need more avarice -- more at stake. They set too light a tone.

Jim Chovick makes old Ephraim a scrapping, red-faced belligerent who will stay King of the Mountain, to the end of his days, then tear the mountain down. Chovick gives Ephraim the larger-than-life size O'Neill wanted. He also suggests that the man's real battle has not only been against his wives and children, and the stony acreage he cultivated an inch at a time: it's been against his mortality.

Desire Under the Elms, by Eugene O'Neill

Cygnet Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Boulevard, College Area

Directed by Sean Murray; cast: Francis Gercke, Jessica John, Jim Chovick, John Garcia, Craig Huisenga; scenic design, Murray; costumes, Jeanne Reith; lighting, Eric Lotze; sound, George Ye

Playing through June 3; Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-337-1525, x3.

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