Dr. Phil would have a field day with this family. Dad Agamemnon pissed off the goddess Artemis, so he sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to make things right. But that made things very wrong with Mom Clytemnestra, who hit the sheets with Aegisthus while Agamemnon was off fighting the Trojan War. She and her new guy met Aggie with an axe when he returned home, and his forward-thinking daughter Electra realized her brother Orestes would be next on the chopping block, so she smuggled him out of the country. And that's just backstory.
Sophocles' Electra, like his better-known Oedipus Rex, examines archetypal psychological issues. Electra stays stuck in grieving mode, obsessed with the thought of Orestes returning to kill Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. A constantly crying woman isn't very dramatically interesting, so Sophocles makes the story theatrical by having Orestes share his revenge plot with the audience: He will send word that he is dead and arrive as the bearer of Orestes' ashes. Once invited into the palace, he will kill his father's killers.
Michele Hand anchors the show with a nuanced performance as Electra. Her heavy heart is buoyed only by the hope of seeing Orestes again. When the fabricated news of Orestes' death hits Electra's ears, we watch her heart break as new sorrow washes over old. "My life is a river, it floods with grief," she wails, and the audience can only bear her suffering because they know that Orestes will come.
But before he arrives, Clytemnestra confronts Electra, demanding an end to her talk of revenge. Nancy Lewis portrays Clytemnestra with equal parts of strength and fear. Lewis and Hand invest their characters with complex emotions, revealing human flaws and avoiding stereotypes. Their dialogue is taut, their reactions compelling. Electra's subsequent encounter with her sister Chrysothemis (Karen Palmer) is equally tense; Palmer and Hand seem like real sisters in both their arguments and their attachment.
When Orestes shows up with the urn supposedly carrying his ashes, Sophocles creates an intriguing scene of suspense. Will Orestes be able to keep up the façade in the face of Electra's unbearable agony? After what seems like an eternity, Orestes reveals himself, and tears of joy burst from Electra as she runs to his arms. Once again Hand's genuine emotional responses are astonishing, and her interactions with Orestes (Brendan Allred) are fresh and spontaneous. Allred gives a believable performance as a man confronting his fate; he accepts his duty but doesn't relish it.
Directed by Steve Callahan, this fine West End Players Guild production is traditional without being boring. The set is reminiscent of an amphitheater. Greek songs and phrases are intoned throughout the play, giving the sense that the actors are possessed by ancient spirits. The traditional Chorus is embodied by a trio of attractive actresses (giving some scenes a kind of Charlie's Angels look). Jea Hyun Rhyu, Jill Ritter and Julie Stockhausen provide solid support and seem deeply committed to the action of the play. Callahan has Orestes and Electra use Greek masks in moments when they are completely overcome by their family curse; in the end Electra is able to abandon this symbol of the past -- about as happy an ending as one could imagine under the circumstances. Those familiar with Greek myths know that Orestes isn't free and clear -- he'll be hounded by the Furies for quite a while after this (punishment for killing his mother) -- but that's another story.
While the show isn't perfect (there are a few distractingly melodramatic sound cues, and the fairly tight translation by Frank McGuinness should be trimmed during the description of the chariot race), it's truly remarkable for two reasons. The first is for the bold choice to produce the play -- it's the kind of show rarely done by community theaters. The second and more compelling reason is the astonishing performance by Michelle Hand. She takes us on the journey of Electra, a challenging trip for all.