BWW Review: World Premiere of FALL: Arthur Miller's Sad Secret

BWW Review: World Premiere of FALL: Arthur Miller's Sad Secret

Fall

Written by Bernard Weinraub, Directed by Peter DuBois; Scenic Design, Brandon McNeel; Costume Design, Ilona Somogyi; Lighting Design, Philip Rosenberg; Original Music & Sound Design, John Gromada; Projection Design, Zachary Borovay; Production Stage Manager, Kevin Schlagle; Stage Manager, Jeremiah Mullane

CAST: Josh Stamberg, Joanne Kelly, John Hickok, Joanna Glushak, Nolan James Tierce

Performances through June 16 at Huntington Theatre Company, Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-266-0800 or www.huntingtontheatre.org

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Arthur Miller was renowned and celebrated for his masterpiece Death of a Salesman, as well as All My Sons and The Crucible, plays in which issues of morality took center stage. He refused to name names when called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, spoke out agains the Vietnam War, and was an activist in many social causes, allowing him to be seen as the moral conscience of the nation. However, Bernard Weinraub reveals Miller's feet of clay in the world premiere of his play Fall, directed by Peter DuBois at Huntington Theatre Company's Calderwood Pavilion.

After his divorce from his most (in)famous second wife, Marilyn Monroe, Miller married Austrian-born photojournalist Inge Morath in 1962 and together they had their daughter Rebecca that same year. Fall takes place between 1964 and 2005 in Connecticut and New York, and it opens as Miller (Josh Stamberg) and his producer Robert Whitehead (John Hickok) are readying his new work, After the Fall. A thinly-veiled account of his marriage to Monroe, it did not fare well on Broadway, closing after 208 performances. In 1966, on the heels of that disappointment, 43-year old Morath (Joanne Kelly) gave birth to their son Daniel, born with Down syndrome.

Following the advice of their doctors and in keeping with the typical practice of the times, Miller and Morath placed Daniel in a facility. She visited him regularly, but Miller virtually erased his son from his life, and it is that unlikely phenomenon that Weinraub explores with a keen and nonjudgmental eye in Fall. How was it possible for him to do that, to keep it a secret, and continue to live his life while burying the shame he had to have felt? How would it impact his marriage and family, their friendships, and his work? All of this is fodder for Weinraub and he dives into it with a balanced approach, displaying understanding for both sides of the conundrum and leaving it up to the audience to form their own conclusions.

Ultimately, Fall is a character-driven play whose characters are driven by a critical event in their lives. The playwright delves into the back stories of Arthur and Inge to find the threads that, woven together, make up the whole cloth of their personalities. Her childhood experiences in a Nazi-occupied country informed her world view in a very different way than Miller's Manhattan upbringing by Polish-Jewish immigrants. Hers was a visual perspective, as seen through the lens of a camera; his was a cerebral, literary perspective that allowed him to compartmentalize, to express his ideology without emotional connection. Despite their differences and the weight of the dark secret they shared with very few people, Miller and Morath were married for about forty years until she succumbed to cancer in 2002. Throughout the play, Weinraub shows us snapshots of instances where they squared off or came together over how to deal with their son, but he avers that there was fluidity in their positions.

DuBois' direction of the tight-knit cast successfully conveys that fluidity and allows for a range of emotions to be displayed. From one scene to another, he gives each moment the luxury of time to let us feel what the characters are experiencing. Stamberg commands the stage while giving a performance of great depth. He brings forth Miller's intelligence, artistic passion, and his moral certitude, and shifts seamlessly into his darker emotions of anger, doubt, and shame. He connects organically with Kelly, a force in her own right, making their relationship feel entirely authentic. Like any married couple, they may be bantering and cuddling, totally in synch one minute, before a spark sets them off and they take to their battle stations. Kelly's portrayal of Inge's guilt about Daniel's condition is raw and primal, but she also shows great strength as the protective mother trying to advocate for him with her unmovable husband.

Both Hickok and Joanna Glushak (Dr. Wise) are steady, solid presences in supporting roles. Whitehead and Miller have a long history of both friendship and working together, and Stamberg and Hickok share an easy camaraderie. The latter also lends support and understanding to Inge as one of the few who knows about Daniel. Dr. Wise is pivotal as the one who encourages the couple to place the baby in a facility, even as she acknowledges her own dearth of expertise in the subject, and Glushak's performance is richly nuanced. Weinraub charges her with making it clear that parents were regularly counseled to give up children with Down syndrome at that time, and that Miller and Morath were not horrible for doing so. Watching through the eyes of 2018, it is important to buy into that to more fully appreciate the quandary they were in.

Although he has minimal stage time, Daniel (Nolan James Tierce) is a constant throughout Fall. He introduces himself at the beginning, has a brief meeting with his surprised father at a speaking engagement in the second act, and returns to the spotlight at the conclusion of the play to let us know how things turned out. Tierce is a Boston actor with Down syndrome whose scenes are among the most poignant simply because his talent and comfort in himself prove that he is exactly where he ought to be. For all the years that Miller didn't see his son, he could not imagine the life that Daniel would achieve, nor could we, until Tierce stands up to show us.

The excellent design elements in Fall are evocative of the time period and the lifestyle of Miller and Morath. Scenes in their apartment in the Chelsea Hotel take place downstage and use minimal furnishings that slide on and off. A screen rises to reveal a complete hospital room for the important scenes following the birth, and, later, the comfortable Miller home in Connecticut. Brandon McNeel's scenic design is augmented by lighting designer Philip Rosenberg with warm hues at home and more harsh tones in the hospital. Zachary Borovay's projection design includes numerous newspaper clippings and photos on the upstage screen to allude to events and advance the time. Ilona Somogyi's costume designs also reflect the march of time, and John Gromada provides sound design and original music for underscoring.

From the remove of fifty years, it is challenging not to judge Miller and Morath by our standards and by what we know now about the value of inclusion. However, it is worth setting aside that knowledge, to step back to the era of the play and walk in their shoes. Can we really know how we might have acted in the same circumstances? As surprising as it was to learn Miller's secret (it never really came out until 2007), it serves as a strong reminder that despite one's public persona, there may be a vast divide between it and one's private life. Shortly before his death, Miller changed his will to include Daniel and give him an equal share with his other three children. I'm not sure if that reflects triumph or tragedy.

Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson (Josh Stamberg, Joanne Kelly, John Hickok)

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