By David Templeton
'I don't believe grief is grief unless it kills you."
So says the guilt-ridden lawyer Quentin in the opening moments of Arthur Miller's After the Fall, and those 10 words sum up the weight being carried by a man who cannot forgive himself for having survived and even thrived in a world where others have failed and died.
Wait. You've never heard of Arthur Miller's After the Fall? Well, don't fret about it. You're not alone. After the Fall is hardly Arthur Miller's best-known or most frequently performed play. That would be Death of a Salesman. If it is known by casual theatergoers at all, After the Fall is usually spoken of as "the Marilyn Monroe play."
Arguably Miller's most autobiographical stage piece, Fall does indeed include a tragic dim-bulb sex symbol character based on his second wife, Marilyn Monroe, but there is much more to the piece than that. First staged in 1964, the play is Miller's anguished (and perhaps a little too personal) attempt to explain and wrestle with the guilt of his own past. After the Fall has been accused of being too trivial, a play about a man who feels bad about having divorced two difficult women, who feels responsible for the deaths of friends during the McCarthy Blacklist era, and who even feels regret for going to college and becoming a success instead of joining his father's failing manufacturing business. Miller's experimental use of memory, with characters from different time periods colliding into one another and randomly barking out significant remarks from the past, has been perceived as a playwright's whining self-indulgence.
While certainly flawed, After the Fall is a fascinating and powerful play, containing some of Miller's most beautifully written language, and it's a pity that it isn't performed more often, quirks and all. Ironically, there are about to be two separate productions of the play running at the same time in the North Bay: director Carl Hamilton (whose oft-stated goal is to direct every play ever written by Miller) opens Fall this weekend at the Raven Theater in Healdsburg, while Marin County's gutsy AlterTheater ensemble--the edgy professional company that performs its plays exclusively in nontheatrical, store-front settings located somewhere along San Rafael's Fourth Street--opened its own three-week-long production last Friday.
Having not seen Hamilton's production, I cannot comment on it, but the AlterTheater production, superbly directed by Jessica Heidt, is the most satisfying theatrical experience I've had this year. Staged on the large, carpeted floor of a vacant Victorian storefront, the spare and elegant production makes wonderful use of every inch of the unusual performance space (designed by Stanley E. Gibbs), and does so with confident technical support by Norman Kern and Tahzay Mikkael on sound and lights. The cast, pared down to eight actors playing 13 roles, is exceptional across the board.
As the emotionally conflicted Quentin, Nick Sholley is convincingly tied in knots, stepping in and out of his own life as he attempts to catch us up on the events of the last several years. He has fallen in love with a beautiful German intellectual, Holga (played with luminous complexity by Jeanette Harrison), and wonders if he has what it takes to make a third marriage work.
"Life is evidence," he says, "and I have two divorces in my safety deposit box."
His memories of his first marriage to the brittle Louise (heartbreakingly done by Ayla Yarkut) collide with those of his mother (Patricia Silver), father (Dennis Yen) and brother (Eric Fraisher Hayes), whose actions, judgments and sacrifices pile up like rocks at the bottom of an avalanche, setting the stage for Quentin's marriage to the switchboard operator-turned-singer Maggie, a stunningly committed Karen Aldridge, who tackles the role with bravura, courage and raw emotional honesty. Other roles are well-filled by the mutifaceted Dawn Scott.
In the end, After the Fall is more than just a play about a man ridding himself of bad memories; it's a play about living with shame. Miller talks to the audience, to history and to God, when, pleading with Louise at the end of his first marriage, he wrenchingly demands, "How much shame do you want me to feel?"
AlterTheater's production of 'After the Fall' runs Thursday-Sunday through Nov. 12. Thursday at 7pm; Friday-Saturday at 8pm; Sunday at 5pm. Discussion follows Nov. 5 and 10 performances. $20; Nov. 2, pay- what-you-can admission available 30 minutes prior to curtain. AlterTheater Ensemble, 1557 Fourth St, San Rafael, 415.454.2787. The Raven Players production of 'After the Fall' runs Friday-Saturday Nov. 3-18 at 8pm. Raven Performing Arts Center, at the Raven Theater, 115 North St., Healdsburg. $11-$18; $5 tickets on preview night, Thursday, Nov. 2. 707.433.6335, ext. 11.
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