Monday, August 09, 2010

What Happens When An Everyman Marries the World's Most Famous Woman?

Theater Review

After the Fall
A play by Arthur Miller
Eclipse Theatre Company
Greenhouse Theater, Chicago
Thru August 22, 2010

Of all the major playwrights with whom I'm somewhat familiar--including O'Neill, Williams, Beckett, Odets, Simon, Foote and Mamet--Arthur Miller is clearly my favorite. Perhaps it's because his works are so simultaneously accessible and allegorical, but plays like Death of a Salesman, All My Sons, The Crucible, Incident at Vichy and The Price are pretty much the benchmarks by which I gauge all dramas.

Myriad critical assessments of Miller certainly provide depth beyond anything I can add, but if you're familiar with the paintings of Edward Hopper, which depict people in states of melancholy and disquiet, I like to think of Miller as the writer who can best provide the backstory to Hopper's troubled souls. And what has made characters like Willy Loman  (in 'Salesman'), Joe Keller (All My Sons), Victor Franz (The Price) so compelling is the way that Miller imbues them with universality. I'm sure it's been said numerous times, but Miller was a master at writing about the "everyman."

Though I never had seen nor read his 1964 play, After the Fall, before catching a fine staging of it by the Eclipse Theatre Co. on Saturday, I knew in passing that it was an autobiographical work about Miller's ultimately failed marriage to Marilyn Monroe. Yet during the first act, when it's obvious that the central character, Quentin, represents Miller and that many of the dramatics taking place inside his head--the play is mostly an exposition of Quentin's thoughts--are loosely based on events in Miller's life even before the Marilynesque Maggie character becomes prominent, Quentin's crises are universal enough that I could readily see him as an everyman. It's not hard to imagine that the folks populating Nighthawks have had similar troubles with their friends, co-workers, parents and spouses.

The funny thing is that even though the 90-minute first act has enough of Miller's shrewd dialogue and engaging themes to move quickly, the play becomes more riveting (though not necessarily better) in Act 2, when the drug-addled Maggie (i.e. Marilyn) provides Quentin/Arthur with more than he can handle before winding up dead from suicide as Monroe famously did (conspiracy theories aside) in 1962. I'm sure audiences in 1964 were even more consumed by the autobiographical aspects than any grand statements Miller may have been trying to make, and while I was sufficiently entertained, I too lost track of any overarching message.

In essence, After the Fall becomes much more dramatic when it starts being less about everyman and more narrowly about Miller (and Marilyn), but because of this it is less ultimately rewarding than his more universally-themed dramas. But second-tier Miller, even 3 hours of it, is still better than many other plays and Eclipse is to be applauded for taking on this challenging work. About the best a theater company can hope to achieve is to leave viewers convinced that they wouldn't have appreciated the source material any more if presented anywhere else (on a similar first-viewing), and Eclipse's version of After the Fall accomplishes this, with excellent performances throughout. Nathaniel Swift as Quentin (who is onstage and central throughout the entire 3 hours) and Nora Fiffer, who encapsulates Monroe's seductively naive fragility as Maggie, are especially stellar.

Back in 2004, I saw Miller's final play, Finishing the Picture, in its world premiere production at Goodman Theater. Like After the Fall, this was also interpreted as a largely autobiographical play, and will even less so be remembered as one of his masterpieces. Seems Miller was a genius when writing of the collective human condition, but more of an everyman when writing about his own.

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