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by Kilian Melloy
Friday Jun 1, 2018
Josh Stamberg, Joanne Kelly, and John Hickok in 'Fall'
Josh Stamberg, Joanne Kelly, and John Hickok in 'Fall'  (Source:T. Charles Erickson)

Early in Bernard Weinraub's new play "Fall," now in its world premiere production at the Boston Center for the Arts and produced by Huntington Theatre Company, iconic American playwright Arthur Miller (a terrific Josh Stamberg) is lauded by theater producer Robert Whitehead (John Hickok) as the country's "moral conscience." Whitehead is introducing the playwright to the cast of Miller's newest work, "After the Fall," and Miller is about to subject the room to a traditional reading of his freshly-written script. It's a performance that smacks of immense hubris, but Miller, in Stamberg's reading, is endowed with unflappable self-confidence more than insufferable self-regard.

He's also a man who's been left marked by his nine-year relationship with another American icon, Marilyn Monroe, whose terrors and suicidal tendencies have left him traumatized. Despite that, Stamberg gives us the feeling that Miller is still - and always will be - very much in love with Monroe.

All this goes some distance toward preparing us for what happens when Inge (Joanna Kelly), Miller's wife, delivers a son who is born with Down syndrome. The baby is instantly the subject of labels that make one wince: "Defective," "damaged," "disposable," and, finally, "deleted" - as in, from his father's life and, to an uncomfortable degree, from his mother's life, as well. The baby's name fits in with this alliterative barrage: He's called Daniel, and there's a moment in which Inge, confronting Miller in a sort of fantasy, observes that the name sounds an awful lot like "denial."

Josh Stamberg, Joanne Kelly, and Joanna Glushak  (Source:T. Charles Erickson)

Miller and Inge decide, with the encouragement of a pediatrician name Dr. Wise (Joanna Glushak), to institutionalize Daniel. If they don't, Dr. Wise warns them, the child's special needs will quickly overwhelm them, leaving them no energy or time to spare for one another or their own careers.

The relentless negativity that surrounds Daniel becomes a sort of narrative and emotional negative space. We meet Daniel briefly, at the play's very beginning, when, as young man, he introduces himself to us. He doesn't show up again until near the end of Act II, when he appears unexpectedly to greet Miller with warmth and pride, triggering a panicky reaction in his father that translates into a frigid response. But Daniel is a gravitational influence on his parents, the sort that might if allowed, act as an anchor and center of stability. That's not to be; in sending Daniel away to a series of institutions (one of which becomes the subject of a media-scrutinized scandal for the way it abuses and neglects its inmates), Miller and Inge have created a pit of guilt and shame from which there is no escape. Weinraub highlights the tragic irony: Miller's plays are about social and familial ethics, and, as the playwright himself points out, the ways in which fathers betray sons and then find their betrayals exact a heavy toll.

Weinraub focuses quite a lot of the play's energy on Inge's emotional distress, first as a mother devastated by the news of her son's medical condition and then, as years scroll past in scenes that deftly sketch the arc of the drama, a wife forced to offer what parental care she can manage around her husband's stonewalling. But Miller's rejection of Daniel remains a potent force throughout, and Weinraub is clever about the clues he provides as to the playwright's frame of mind. Miller wishes to be a good father in the sense of the traditional patriarch who founds and then passes along a worthwhile legacy; we see that from the start when we first meet Miller as he's working to complete a totally hand-made chair, which he intends to be a family heirloom. The very nature of the object - useful, the product of hours of woodworking - speaks of Miller's masculine pride, the sort of pride that fathers beam upon sons that live up to expectations, some of them perhaps a trifle unfair.

Josh Stamberg and Joanne Kelly  (Source:T. Charles Erickson)

Put those clues about Miller's security around his own manhood (or lack of it) together with his regret over the productive years he feels he lost to Monroe (this despite the deep creative well their marriage proves to be, one that Miller visits repeatedly over the course of his career) and the emotional strain he's already endured, and what emerges in the audience's imagination is a rounded portrait of a complex man caught in a situation he's simply not equipped to deal with.

The play's scalding family dynamics are leavened with humor, much of it provided by Dr. Wise (a liberal who also fails to connect with a child, in her case a conservative son who has made a career of the military) and Whitehead (a wry presence with an understated charm; there were times, thanks to Hickok's personable interpretation and his combination of white-haired maturity and ageless vitality, when I almost thought I was watching John Slattery). The writing leans a little too heavily on Sturm und Drang, and Kelly is tasked with many of the emotional pyrotechnics; she's required to scream quite a lot, whether from anguish or rage or a potent mixture of both. But Kelly rises effortlessly to the occasion; her energy never flags, and the drama benefits from the way she keeps her performance grounded.

So does Stemberg, whose own pyrotechnics are of a different but no less powerful sort. Spotting Daniel's unexpected presence in the backyard one Thanksgiving, Miller nearly unravels on the spot. "We had an agreement," he sputters again and again, and several things are clear about the nature of that agreement: First, it's unilaterally imposed, to some degree; also, it serves as the emotional twine - a kind of security blanket - that allows him to function without ever really addressing the underlying source or nature of the distance he maintains from his son.

Director Peter DuBois skillfully, delicately masters this challenging material and makes it flow as seamlessly as the swift, effective scenic changes. Speaking of scenic design, while many of the play's scenes rely on cleverly-sketched settings (a sofa and coffee table roll out, a window dressing drops into place, and a projection by Zachary Borovay fills in a view), scenic designer Brandon McNeel has two detailed, and quite contrasting, sets to reveal: In Act I it's a hospital room - clinical, forbidding, somewhat cold. In Act II, though, we enter Miller and Inge's home, and it's a beauty. Philip Rosenberg's lighting scheme brings the set to life in all of its configurations, while John Gromada's sound design completes the illusions of time and place. Gromada's original music also fits like a glove - much as do the beautiful period- and character-specific costumes by Ilona Somogyi.

"Fall" triumphs on every level: Writing, direction, performance, design. Like Miller's very best, this play centering on the famed playwright and his family is a must-see.

"Fall" runs through June 16 at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts. Tickets and information at https://www.huntingtontheatre.org/season/2017-2018/fall/

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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