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Director Sheila Daniels on Electra's legacy of violence and heart of reconciliation

One of the ancient Greece’s most dysfunctional families dominated the plays of the time and still resonate and shock today.
Marya Sea Kaminski as Electra and Darragh Kennan as Orestes (Susanna Burney in back as Chorus).
Brother and sister reconcile. Photo: John Uhlman
Which means the first question asked of director Sheila Daniels is: does Electra’s mommy Clytemnestra deserve to die?

“To me, Electra is not a question of whether anyone deserves to be killed. When we think of ancient Greece, it is very clear that in their law, she does deserve to die for her crimes. In the rules of the gods, it is an eye for an eye,” said Daniels. “But one of the things that is interesting to me is the very clear statement at the end of play: but will there be killing after killing forever? In other words, does violence beget violence? Interestingly, it’s stated by one of the villains.”

Electra’s struggles with this cycle of violence fascinate Daniels, as does the mother and daughter debates between two strong characters.

“Clytemestra can justify the murder, perhaps, but she can never justify that she is sleeping with the man that murdered her husband and who abuses her children,” she observed. In Daniels’ version, both Electra (Marya Sea Kaminski) and her sister Chrysothemis (Susannah Millonzi) bear visible bruises even as the play begins.

“The legacy of violence, whether Greek or a modern American play, doesn’t change,” said Daniels. “I’ve always been interested in examining the violence of the heart—not because I like it, but because I feel that we don’t talk about it enough. Not in terms of what we do to the people that we love.”

And Daniels finds the fact that Electra is a rather unlikable woman fascinating too. “It’s easy to examine to people who are easy to take. But people like Electra force us to examine those unpleasant aspects within ourselves as well. Yet her wish for her brother to return, to be alive (because at one point she believes him dead), is what we all wish for.”

The same themes that drew Daniels to her acclaimed version of Crime and Punishment that played at Intiman in 2009. “I think also there is a way as human beings that we convince ourselves that if we have a certain thing—a job, an object, a person—that will bring us peace. So we fight and fight and fight for that thing, only to find that the peace of that moment doesn’t last and we have to deal with the repercussions of what we have done. Electra may be fighting for justice but what she is longing for is peace.”

The setting of this version is stark, barren, and timeless. “I wanted it to be an exterior of a home that reflected Electra’s psyche—one that had been destroyed and thus reflected her destruction. This space gives us columns, so we used that. Another challenge for this show is that rehearsals overlapped with [December’s] Twelfth Night, so we had to use the same footprint of the set.”

Audience members will recognize the window and door placements of Olivia’s house have been translated to Electra’s far more barren home. “However the textures are completely different everywhere and the resulting structure suggests how ravaged she is,” Daniels said.

Electra’s only solace becomes the much anticipated return of her brother Orestes, the man that she wants to murder her mother. “She truly believes that if Orestes comes back, she will finally have peace and she will be released,” said Daniels.

For Daniels, and she hopes her audience, that moment of reconciliation with Orestes becomes the true heart of the play. “There are certain people that I would give anything to be with one more time.”