The continuing adventures of Beau Yarbrough

Kelly McGillis goes over-the-top in O’Neill’s ‘Electra’

Thursday, May 22, 1997, 0:00
Section: Awards,Journalism

Virginia Press Association

This is one of three Potomac News reviews that won me a first place Virginia Press Association award in the Critical Writing category for medium-size newspapers in January 1998.

There’s no way around it: “Mourning Becomes Electra” at the Shakespeare Theater is a stinker.

It’s not as though there aren’t solid performances in the production of Eugene O’Neill’s classic of near-incest and revenge. Ted van Griethuysen, as Civil War Brig. Gen. Ezra Mannon, turns in a solid performance, as do Franchelle Stewart Dorn, as his wife Christine, and Emery Battis as Seth Beckwith.

And the set is something to see: An enormous tomb-like estate, rotating to reveal an inner, dingy heart.

Although the play’s language sometimes feels a little dated or stilted, it’s still a powerful piece.

No, the problem is a startlingly over-the-top performance by Kelly McGillis as Mannon’s daughter Lavinia.

Never mind that yet again McGillis is yet again playing a character she’s absolutely unsuited for. McGillis, as she has in several other Shakespeare Theater plays this season, plays a character almost a third of her age, prompting audible sounds of disbelief from the audience the first time Lavinia’s age is mentioned.

And the argument that there were no mature roles available doesn’t work here, either: Christine’s role is one of the play’s meatiest.

For whatever reason, McGillis and director Michael Kahn have made this play the latest in their string of vanity productions for the actress, but this time there’s no hint of the subtle, nuanced performer who made her name in the film “Witness” over a decade ago.

Deprived of her mother’s love growing up, Lavinia is obsessively fixated on her father, to the point of trying to “become another wife to him.” When he returns home from the Civil War, she’s quick to try to dominate his time and attention, and holds a blackmail threat over her mother’s head (mom has been consorting with a seaman, Mannon’s long-lost nephew).

When Mannon dies, his heart medication replaced by poison, McGillis leaps onto his bed, roaring with agony, cradling his dead body against her. But instead of seeming tragic, it’s a performance that draws chuckles from the audience, and drove some for the exits during the play’s two intermissions.

And this isn’t just a momentary lapse: Every scene McGillis is in is infected with what might diplomatically be called “energy,” although “gross overacting” seems more accurate. Even Dorn and van Griethuysen give broader performances when onstage with her, either trying to keep the scenes on an even keel or simply trying to keep up.

“Mourning Becomes Electra” is the Shakespeare Theater’s first full-out failure in memory. If you need your classics fix, try to hold on for two weeks: the Shakespeare Theater will return to the Carter Bannon amphitheater for outdoor performances of “Henry V” on June 1.

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