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[Theater reviews]

Separate fables
August Strindberg and Arthur Miller in the Berkshires

BY CAROLYN CLAY

A Dream Play
By August Strindberg. Adapted and directed by Eric Hill. Set design by Yoshinori Tanokura. Costumes by Olivera Gajic. Lighting by Matthew E. Adelson. Sound by Jason A. Tratta. With Craig Baldwin, James Barry, Kanajuan Bentley, Tara Franklin, Reba Herman, Alexander Hill, Richard T. Johnson, Greg Keller, Ann Mahoney, Brian C. Sell, Rachel Sledd, and Joshua Tussin. In the Unicorn Theatre at the Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge, through August 4.

The Man Who Had All the Luck
By Arthur Miller. Directed by Scott Ellis. Set design by Allen Moyer. Costumes by Michael Krass. Lighting by Kenneth Posner. Sound by Eileen Tague. Original music by Tom Kochan. With Chris O’Donnell, Richard Riehle, Dan Moran, Barbara Sims, James Rebhorn, Ryan Shively, Jennifer Dundas, Mason Adams, Edward James Hyland, Sam Robards, and David Wohl. At the Williamstown Theatre Festival through July 29.

Two old, rarely-to-never-done plays have been declared undead in the Berkshires this week. Both are introduced by ringing telephones. But whereas Eric Hill’s grotesque and balletic Berkshire Theatre Festival staging of August Strindberg’s A Dream Play makes a connection, Arthur Miller’s The Man Who Had All the Luck proves a call waiting that may in all good conscience be ignored. Both Strindberg’s dream and Miller’s " fable " are in impressive productions, though, the former with a talented cast of young unknowns, the latter in a looming Scott Ellis–hewn frame of Americana at the center of which is Scent of a Woman star Chris O’Donnell in his stage debut. And it must be admitted that the young Miller, as represented in this Williamstown Theatre Festival revival of his 1944 Broadway flop, comes off as saner than the Strindberg of his 1901 dreaming — though the Swedish playwright, asleep, is less of a snooze.

In adapting and directing Strindberg’s turn-of-the-century fantasia — which has oftener than not defied staging — Hill takes his cue from Ingmar Bergman, who successfully streamlined the work in the 1970s. But whereas Bergman had the swirl of Eastern, Christian, surreal, and domestically hellish imagery in the piece unfold as the " dream " of the character Strindberg calls the Poet, Hill places it between the ears of a contemporary woman teetering on the brink of suicide. As she crumbles to the floor, spilling a cup of coffee to the insistent ring of an on-stage telephone, A Dream Play’s strange, allegorical world flashes through her mind like danced lightning. The woman becomes Strindberg’s Agnes, who is often conflated in the piece with its Indra’s Daughter, the Hindu deity who travels, Jesus-like, to Earth, only to declare humanity the pitiable result of the coupling of Brahma and Maya — a joyless bundle of guilt at war with sensuality. Here the Daughter is both Agnes’s doppelgänger and her spiritual guide (and in Hill’s staging the two are Parent Trap–worthy doubles), and the " dream " is a moment of crisis in which the modern woman must choose between life, with its attendant responsibility and sorrows, and blowing her brains out.

Obviously, we can — and do — dream any damn thing, and one too many yoga classes coupled with a dour period novel might put A Dream Play into a troubled 21st-century head. Hill wisely dispenses with some (but not all) of Strindberg’s Christian imagery and a lot of his nattering about class, paring the play to 90 minutes. But the dream retains, for the most part, its period poetical setting, with the contemporary Agnes — now a glimmering, slick-haired mirror of Indra’s Daughter — set down in its swirl. And swirl the play does, in the intimate Unicorn Theatre, with little of the clunky elaborateness Strindberg envisioned. (The playwright gets his symbolic plants and flowers, but here they sprout, Magritte-like, from the heads of several characters.) With a sound design that ranges from grinding electronic noise to Bach, this chamber Dream Play feels more like a well-executed bare-bones modern-dance work than an arcane expressionist spectacle by modern drama’s mad, marriage-bashing genius.

The Daughter’s sorrowful overview of human life is deftly married here to an almost carny sensibility, Strindberg’s godly Glazier a slithery figure with a large bottle atop his head, his Foulstrand Quarantine Master a circus barker of the damned, his robed academics cavorting in Groucho masks. The play’s more portentous elements are not slighted, but the sad, symbolic profundities of loving and suffering, coupling and coming apart, are presented with a lightness that belies without erasing their magnitude. Both Ann Mahoney, as Agnes, and Tara Franklin, as Indra’s Daughter, manage the job of pained, compassionate onlooker in a manner that is believable and touching without being heavy-handed. Craig Baldwin, his eyes rimmed in black, is a grim yet empathetic figure as the duty-touting Lawyer with whom Agnes temporarily joins her destiny, only to be beaten down by the squalidness of domestic life. Greg Keller brings an almost goofy optimism to the Officer, cheerily awaiting his beloved though his uniform grows moldy with age. And the entire ensemble rises to the challenge of Hill’s precise, now frenzied, now robotic design.

Miller’s play too is a dream of sorts — in the author’s words, a representation of " the dreamlike irreality of success and power. " But the then-fledgling eminence’s first Broadway effort is more an Aaron Copland vision than a Strindberg one. Set in the Midwest in the late 1930s, it focuses on David Beeves (O’Donnell), a young man upended by the luck — good rather than bad — that renders him feeling as powerless over his fate as Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck.

In his autobiography Timebends, Miller intimates that the play was misunderstood by the ’40s Broadway audience, which took it too literally. He quotes one critic as telling him, " You’ve written a tragedy, you know, but in a folk-comedy style. " Ellis’s Williamstown production is the play’s first major revival, in the rehearsal process of which Miller participated. And it pointedly presents the work as an American fable, with both folk and Faustian aspects, its three acts incorporating six scenes fused by Tom Kochan’s Copland-echoing score. There are times you want to stand up and put your hand over your heart, but you do get the idea that The Man Who Had All the Luck is a fantasy in realistic clothing. It feels contrived and hoky nonetheless, and the problem remains that the disintegrating Beeves is unconvincingly if ambiguously snatched from a tragic destiny when all goes his way — yet again — in the end.

The play proves fascinating, though, for its germs of the great Miller themes of All My Sons (1947) and Death of a Salesman (1949). In particular, the expectations and disappointments of fathers and brothers and sons figure into The Man Who Had All the Luck. For all the play’s surface benignity, it pits luck-greased David Beeves against brother Amos and father Pat (the Biff and Willy of the piece), who have spent years methodically pursuing for baseball pitcher Amos the success that seems to stick to David like lint. Even David is bewildered, declaring that Amos " knows how to do one thing perfect " whereas he, an untrained if nice guy standing on the beach of life, sees his every ship come in. Eventually David starts waiting, obsessively, desperately, and at the expense of family happiness, for the other shoe to fall — on him.

Ellis, who is associate artistic director of New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company, has mounted the play, with his central question of whether we citizens of an upbeat nation make our luck or must just accept it, realistically yet grandly. The design team provides a vast, light-leaking barn frame for Miller’s fabling evocation of baseball and barbecues and the pursuit of prosperity, whether in the form of the rare Marmon automobile that dominates act one or the minks to which mechanic-turned-farmer Dave ultimately, fixedly, attaches his star. And O’Donnell acquits himself well in the difficult role of a nice guy who does not recede into the background — though, like everyone else, he’s dwarfed by Allen Moyer’s big, flat set, which serves the piece as sort of a mood ring.

Miller surrounds his Tom Hanksian hero with a somewhat cliché’d assortment of family and friends, including fatherly if soused J.B. Feller (a Wilford Brimley–like Richard Riehle), mink mentor/crank Dan Dibble (a crusty Mason Adams), and German-immigrant guardian angel Gus Eberson (an earnest Sam Robards). Jennifer Dundas is fierce if a bit shrill as Hester, the rich girl who finally gets to marry Dave when — in one of his countless bits of luck — the Marmon accidentally runs over her nasty dad. And James Rebhorn and Ryan Shively, as pop Pat and brother Amos, prove unidimensionally touching in both optimism and defeat. The most colorful, if unlikely, character is bald-pated, wheelchair-bound Shory (Dan Moran), whose weltanschauung is that man is but " a jellyfish " subject to the tides. In the case of The Man Who Had All the Luck, the tides have washed up an interesting nugget of American-theater history that, unlike the proverbial seashell, makes a pretty creaky sound.

Issue Date: July 26- August 2, 2001