Family drama and forbidden passion in 'Desire Under the Elms' at Actor's Express

"Desire Under the Elms" is on stage at Actor's Express through Aug. 28. (Casey Gardner Ford.)

Desire Under the Elms” by Eugene O’Neill explores themes such as lust, revenge, love, faith and the need for a home of one’s own. A production of the American classic is on stage at Actor’s Express through Aug. 28, and artistic director Freddie Ashley is directing the play. He joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes via Zoom to talk more about the play that stirred passions and fomented controversy since its first staging in 1924.

Interview highlights:

A story of a family broken by untamed desire and hardship:

“[The play] centers on a remote farm in Maine and a father who has driven his children really hard their whole lives,” said Ashley. “He has vanished for a couple of months, returning with a young bride, and everyone is sort of angling for ownership of the farm. The young bride and his son ultimately form a clandestine relationship, and the plot spirals out from there.”

“In the character of [farmer and father Ephraim] Cabott, you find someone who has his own singular understanding of God,” Ashley. “He believes that God is hard. He believes that God is in the stones and has chosen — because he heard the voice of God telling him to tend to this land — to create this farm out of a stony field when he had the opportunity to have gone out west and had a much more profitable farm on much more fertile ground. But he sees this as a command from God to live a hard life, to create something productive and beautiful out of something inhospitable.”

How the play’s “seductress” longs for a deeper sense of security:

“Abby is a woman who has had a really hard life. She tells her story to Eben — she’s always wanted a home to call her own, and she married after working as a servant her whole life. Her husband turned out to be an alcoholic, and her baby died, and then her husband died, and she found herself in this endless cycle of servitude,” Ashley recounted. “Marrying Cabott gave her the opportunity, finally, to have a home to call her own. And so she arrives, craving that stability and craving that sense of place.”

“We can only imagine how hard her life has been and why she goes to such links to attain it. I think also it’s important to remember that she genuinely loves Eben, the son. They do form a true love affair, and while things go disastrously wrong and it ultimately leads her to make one major morally reprehensible decision, this is someone who is motivated by the need for security, the need for home, the need for stability in her life — and, frankly, love, which she’s never known.”

A play so scandalous its first 1924 performing cast was arrested:

“I mean, think about it. In the 1920s, when you have a play that doesn’t have the distance, say, of ancient Greek tragedy that depicts a stepmother and a stepson entering into an affair, and of course, the murder that happens as a result of it — I mean, it’s not hard to imagine that people would’ve been shocked by this at that time,” Ashley reflected. “I think it’s something, frankly, that people still find shocking. We were making discoveries during the rehearsal process that we would sort of stop and link the actions together and find ourselves surprised at times because it is something that still is shocking. These are taboos that have yet to be toppled in our civilized society.”

“I’ve also described it as a bit of a fever dream. This play, it operates at a really high level of intensity. The scale and the scope of the emotions, and what’s at stake for the characters, do operate on that scale of Greek tragedy, and the eroticism is also heightened,” said Ashley. “It is a play that lives and dies on that eroticism that’s an undercurrent, that creates a sort of throughline and structure for the play, and it’s inescapable in a play like this.”

“Desire Under the Elms” is on stage at Actor’s Express through Aug. 28. More information is available at