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|A CurtainUp Review
The Ride Down Mt. Morgan
By Les Gutman
Maybe all I can do is hope to end up with the right regrets.
--- Lyman Felt's lawyer, as influenced by Arthur Miller
Pay attention to the corners of Patrick Stewart's mouth. They are the barometer of how well his character, Lyman Felt, is doing in his contest with Arthur Miller. When he is grinning, the moral landscape Miller would paint for us, with its pervasive sense of right and wrong, is fading in Lyman's egocentric universe.
When Elyse Sommer reviewed the original staging of this production at The Public Theater last season, it was against the backdrop of the quite different Summer 1996 version in the Berkshires. (Both reviews are linked below, and should be referred to for any details not reïterated here.) Most significant was the extensive re-writing Miller had done in the interim, sharpening his story and lightening Lyman's load on the despicability scale.
Between last season's staging and this one (essentially a delayed transfer, with only limited cast changes, to be discussed below), Stewart's Lyman has become even more fastidiously entrenched in his self and Miller has worked to make Lyman more accountable for his acts. (It seems Miller wants to let us reach our own conclusion that Lyman is a cad, but can't resist the urge to make sure we do.)
There's a fascinating dynamic under examination here, and between his eighth and ninth decades, Miller seems particularly adept at expressing it. Although originally written as a comment on the Reagan Eighties, it took the Clinton Nineties to bring it into high relief. Lyman, hot-shot insurance agent by day and bigamist by night, lives in a world in which egoism and altruism seem to be converging rather than colliding. Forgive Miller if he occasionally gets long-winded toward the end of the second act as he tries to rein Lyman in. It's an unenviable task. As one of his wives puts it, Lyman's an "endless string attached to nothing".
Stewart is the main attraction here, not because of his star power but because he brings to Lyman's character the sort of detailed attention usually reserved for Shakespeare's tragic heroes. He exudes an appealing charm even when he is blatantly self-indulgent, and seems earnest no matter how much a caricature. His eyes may reveal a seductive twinkle, but never a wink. It's a deceivingly enormous performance.
Miller has provided a finely-observed portrait of Lyman's New York City family, which makes the thinner definition of his Elmira alter-life all the more noticeable. Lyman's very Episcopal wife, Theo, is splendidly portrayed by the wonderful Frances Conroy. Here we meet a woman for whom form prevails over substance until neither continues to function. As Elyse noted, she negotiates an admixture of dignity, humor and vulgarity, and does so with aplomb. Joining the cast as their daughter Bessie, Shannon Burkett is also fine. It's thus disappointing that the other cast change, Katy Selverstone as Leah, the Jewish insurance agent Lyman chooses to marry without the benefit of a divorce, is a weak, centerless rendering that sheds little light.
The play's other two characters are both returnees from the earlier staging. Oni Faida Lampley is excellent as Lyman's nurse-confidant-jury, as is John C. Vennema, who plays the New York City family lawyer, Tom, with just the right mix of outrage and astonishment. To the lawyer, Miller has again attached the moral compass; to the nurse, the sense of societal indifference.
If Mt. Morgan isn't one of Miller's great old plays, it also doesn't look or feel like one. Much of the credit for this goes to director David Esbjornson, who sequences Miller's surprisingly fractured scenes (which employ flashbacks and dreams racing into and out of the present tense) beautifully. He also finds a very natural way to evoke intimacy in less than comfortable environments.
John Arnone's set design, essentially as described in the Public Theater review, is simultaneously functional and symbolic. Lights are employed well to demarcate shifting scenes and to separate the real from the imagined. Costumes are also excellent, especially in positioning the two wives, and Dan Schreier's sometimes jolting sound work rounds out the well-crafted production values.
LINKS MENTIONED ABOVE
CurtainUp's Berkshires review of The Ride Down Mt. Morgan
CurtainUp's review of The Ride Down Mt. Morgan at The Public Theater