Fall’s conflict is presented with insufficient power; its domestic tragedy is not propelled along its inevitably troubling course.
Fall by Bernard Weinraub. Directed by Peter DuBois. Staged by the Huntington Theatre Company at the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, Boston, MA, through June 16.
By Robert Israel
In an early scene in Bernard Weinraub’s two-act play about American playwright Arthur Miller, Miller (Josh Stamberg) is putting the finishing touches on a chair he has cobbled together from a tree he felled on his rambling Connecticut property. His third wife, photographer Inge Morath (Joanne Kelly), pregnant with their son, stands nearby. In this homespun tableau, all seems serene. The man of the house – a successful craftsman with wood and words – has created yet another “perfect” masterpiece. His wife – her belly protruding with their second child – casts adoring glances. Yet the lighting by Philip Rosenberg – creeping from stage left, casts deep shadows across the stage. There is a suggestion, immediately perceived, that darkness is crawling toward their happy home.
Weinraub’s Fall offers a number of indelible scenes like this one as it explores the stormy lives of two famous creative people who harbored a deep secret – the child Morath is carrying is born with Down syndrome and is subsequently institutionalized. Yet a few successful scenes does not a satisfactory play make. Overall, the conflict here is presented with insufficient power; its domestic tragedy is not propelled along its inevitably troubling course. Some scenes are weighed down with agonizingly leaden banter between husband and wife. The upshot is that the actors sometimes seem lost on stage. There are times when they stand around, as Sylvia Plath put it in her poem “Morning Song,” as “blankly as walls.” Also, puzzlingly, the character of Daniel Miller, played by Boston-area actor Nolan James Tierce, who has Down syndrome, is used so sparsely as to turn into a footnote.
Miller, despite the admirable efforts by Stamberg, comes across as a ponderous bore. He and his wife are informed by Dr. Wise (Joanna Glushak) in a hospital room festooned with flowers that their newborn son has Down syndrome. This Miller is content to rub his chin — he is a statue who listens. Perhaps this contemplative stance is meant to convey the inner workings of a deep thinker, the man who gave us Death of a Salesman. But a play must reveal as much as it hides. In Fall, Miller comes to his momentous decision to institutionalize his infant son in a distinctly low-key manner.
Weinraub peppers the play with allusions to history, trying to drum up an insightful tableaux of Bigger Events. A retired newspaperman, he uses headlines snatched from the New York Times — projected against the blank wall of the back of the set — in an effort to place us in Miller’s turbulent times. The factoids are supposed to suggest the whirlwind of activities that distracted Miller from the decline of his literary output, the cruel reception he received from the critics post-Salesman, and his family life. But this theatrical device is pretty stale, looking especially potted once the script catches fire, as when Miller and Morath tussle with one another, when her emotions (long suppressed) finally emerge in a rage against her husband. Finally, Weinraub lets us see that there are irreconcilable tensions between them. Kelly, a wonderful actress and, to a lesser extent, the sometimes-effective John Hickok, who plays Robert Whitehead, Miller’s producer/friend, make the most of these wrenching moments when we feel, keenly, the pain of the couple’s decision to institutionalize their son.
But once that ache passes, Fall ends up chronicling bouts of pacing and moaning. The fact Miller hasn’t produced another hit play on Broadway, or stands with a bullhorn in Central Park barking against the Vietnam War, is not enough to make us share the resonances of his personal angst. Director Peter DuBois would be wise to work with the playwright: to pare back scenes, to push the actors harder, particularly Stamberg, to invest more passion in their reactions, to weave the story of Miller’s struggle as an artist more effectively into the parade of realpolitik headlines.
In addition to the production’s lighting design, kudos should go to Brandon McNeel for his set design, which switches nimbly from a shabby Hotel Chelsea room, with its yellowish drapes, to the rambling splendor of the Millers’ Connecticut home. When the partitions open and furniture moves about there are welcome signs of theatrical life. But scene changes a drama does not make. Miller believed that tragedy is when “the chickens come home to roost.” Surely there should be considerable reaction when they land — much more than we get here.
Robert Israel writes about theater, travel, and the arts, and is a member of Independent Reviewers of New England (IRNE). He can be reached at email@example.com.