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A CurtainUp Los AngelesReview
After the Fall
Miller keeps tight rein on this particular play which hasn't been done in Los Angeles for 24 years. It's in excellent hands in a lean, taut, superb production at the laudable Fountain Theatre under the direction of Stephen Sachs.
Quentin is a lawyer whose torturous course through life is dominated by two great themes: betrayal with its handmaiden guilt, and the concept of a universal bond. Betrayal is first experienced when his beloved mother sends him for a walk with the maid and decamps with the rest of the family to the seashore. The bond is foreshadowed in an early scene when Quentin and his new young love Holga visit the site of a Nazi concentration camp. "My brothers died here and my brothers built this place," Quentin declares in the play's last speech.
Although we only see Quentin's first wife Louise in the anguished fury of the end of her marriage and her portrait is shrewish and one-dimensional, Jacqueline Schultz shows us a hint of the interesting person Louise maintains other people say she is. Maggie has the arc, as Miller traces her from their first meeting on a park bench when her childlike immediacy reduces him to a blissful little boy to her tragic hellish final days.
Both wives accuse Quentin of being so emotionally distant that he makes them feel they don't exist and his anguished questions is how he could have brought such very different women to the same accusation. But his accusations are also the same. To Louise, he cries: "If just once of your own will, you would come to me and say that something important was your fault and you were sorry," and to Maggie, "If you could say 'I have been cruel.'"
In Act I, in the bloody waning days of his marriage to Louise, she cries that she is a separate person. Quentin declares he can't bear to be a separate person but one who supports the people he loves, like his friend Lou who is accused of being a Communist. "When you've finally become a separate person, what the hell is there?" he roars.
In Act II, in the bloody waning days of his marriage to Maggie, the blonde telephone operator who became a famous singer, he says, "We are all separate people. I tried not to be, but I have to survive, too, honey, and I'm through pretending otherwise."
Betrayal played an enormous role in Miller's life when many of his friends were victims of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Elia Kazan, who directed many of the great plays of the period including After the Fall, "named names" of those who were fellow members of a Communist cell. Kazan's autobiography gives an interesting clue to this behavior in an account of his family background in Anatolia. His relatives used to don the fez worn by their Turkish conquerors when they went out of doors. It's impossible to escape the parallels in this family history of fear and a compulsion to belong to the dominant culture.
In the play, a character called Mickey testifies against Lou, Quentin's gentle scholarly mentor, who ultimately commits suicide. Since Mickey seems to be modeled on Kazan, it's hard to know who to credit with his wonderful line about refreshing his romance with his wife by imagining her as a stranger: "You got to generate some respect for her mystery.". Though After the Fall was written in 1964, the roots of the 1953 play The Crucible are unmistakable, both in the HUAC hearings and in the scene between Quentin and Louise. Her cold suspicion, his wandering eye, his outburst, "How much shame do you want me to feel?" echo John Proctor's "Oh, Elizabeth, your justice would freeze beer!" (Editor's Note: The Crucible is currently enjoying a much praised revival in New York and you can read the review of that production here).
The play has its confusions and such clumsy constructions as Holga's dream of kissing a monster baby paralleled with Quentin's final line, "And the wish to kill is never killed, but with some gift of courage one may look into its face when it appears, and with a stroke of love, forgive it." Miller ends on a more realistic, if wary, note, acceding that "it's feasible not to be afraid" and saying "hello" to Holga. After the fall, as the title goes, "we meet unblessed, after the lie of Eden"
Stephen Sachs has deftly pruned the text and its monologues so that every word falls with maximum effect. Miller uses interjections from other characters to underline the action by recalling who said that to Quentin before and, in this memory play, Sachs sets his people behind screens from which the lines land dead center. Sachs comes up with an underlining of his own by dressing the two women of whom Maggie is jealous in red, the color of sin. He also subtly moderates a play that could deteriorate into shouting, abetted by a fine cast.
Morlan Higgins holds center stage with a Quentin who is guilt-ridden, questing, charmingly goofily nuts about Maggie, tentatively weak and strong when he has to be. Tracy Middendorf is a remarkable Maggie, naive, enchanting, possessed and unbearable. She doesn't look anything like Monroe but, in the final scene, lying on the floor with tousled blonde hair, red lips and a black silk slip, she eerily projects a resemblance so universal that one sees why Monroe's unique beauty embodied the Western world's icon of desire. Malachi Throne as the father Quentin betrays and Mimi Cozzens as his forceful mother inhabit their roles with haunting familiarity. Although the cast is excellent, except for Maggie, they are written less as characters than as the aspects of themselves against which Quentin reacts.
The tiny Fountain, where you're almost on stage with the actors, has come up with an excellent set of screens by John Patrick and a shadowing lighting design from Kathi O'Donohue that reflects the changing values of memory.
It's good to see After The Fall 40 years after, like going to your high school reunion and seeing what was there all the time when you were too emotionally involved to notice. In this case, Arthur Miller's honesty, poetry, depth and the very compassionate portrait he has painted of Maggie.
For CurtainUp's backgrounder on Arthur Miller go here.
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