The Ride Down Mount Morgan, by Arthur Miller. Directed by Eric Peterson. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
"Things don't always get done in this country."
Katrina Ferguson, Nigel Gore, Hannah Heller; photo: Richard Howe
It's all about attitude. Playwright Arthur Miller's best ventures are all about attitude. Prime example: Is Willy Loman right in the way he deals with people, his family, his associates, the secretaries he boffs in the course of his traveling salesman nights? In "All My Sons" who has the better leg to stand on in the moral argument about trust, loyalty and the profit margin? The prosecutors in "The Crucible" take on legendary proportion as they pursue with religious fervor all those who look at life differently, an obvious parallel to the ongoing witch-hunt of the House UnAmerican Affairs Committee of the 1950s.
So it is with his late play, "The Ride Down Mount Morgan" a 1991 effort that was seen in a fine production at the Williamstown Theatre Festival many years ago, that then played on Broadway for a brief run and has now resurfaced in Bennington, Vermont in a superb realization at Oldcastle Theatre. There are questions to be answered. Does a man have the right to build a life with two different women, create two different families in order to keep both alive and well and happy with their lot? Not a new question, surely. "The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker" and "The Constant Husband," and the 1914 play "Polygamy" among many others have addressed the question.
What's different in Miller's play is his curiously misshapen take on the results of all this and the even odder questions that emerge during the play. Lyman Felt has crashed his car driving down a snow and ice covered road on Mount Morgan where he lives with his wife Leah and their young son. In the hospital, semi-conscious and only partially aware of his circumstances he discovers that his wife and daughter have been called; not his wife Leah, but his wife of longer standing Theo and their married off-spring, Bessie. He is rightfully upset at this incidental dilemma. Or is he? Is this really the anticipated outcome of an accident that may not have been an accident? Is it important to this man, at this stage in his life, to inform both wives of the implied rights each have to him and to whatever he can contribute? Who is this man? His attorney isn't sure. His wives aren't convinced. His daughter is morally distraught. Is this his goal, or is it merely to bring into question the whole concept of individual freedoms?
Miller invests his characters with idealized morality. For them love equals trust and when you add in the greater good of happiness and contentment how much can you question motives that bring you what you long for and possess and cherish. Miller is a clever man, one who himself was troubled by the differences in his own marriages and what each brought him. Remember, he married Marilyn Monroe at one point. From his point of view Lyman is a highly moral man and he presents him in this situation as someone willing to take a stand on this morality no matter the price he must pay for it.
Under the excellent direction by Eric Peterson who clearly gets what this play is all about, Nigel Gore racks up a full-score win as Lyman Felt. His performance has sharpness and a surprisingly smoothe delivery that empowers his character's simple belief in himself and his choices. Gore has rarely seemed to totally human in previous performances, but here he is a winner, even when things are on the brink of disaster for Lyman. Lyman's motives are never completely clear, and yet his decisions cannot be questioned as Gore presents them. There is something in his voice that says, simply, "this is right," and in spite of themselves, and ourselves, his wives and his audience buy into what he tells them. This is a brilliantly unacted performance. Instead it is as though Gore and Miller both understand the same things and fully condemn anyone who says otherwise, from a child to a lawyer to the government that threatens to interrupt the fine style of life Lyman has created for himself and for those he loves.
Katrina Ferguson imbues Theo, wife number one, with a pathos that is redolent with accidental humor and incidental angst. Theo is a strong visual figure whose emotional outbursts are tempered with both loathing and love. It is her honest belief in right and wrong that triggers the conflicts here and it is also her equally honest belief in the life she has lived with her husband that allows her to consider the outcome of betrayal: his, hers, anyone's. Ferguson manages to play all sides of this character beautifully. She is multi-dimensional in her portrait of a woman, not scorned or set aside, but joined together with a life she knows nothing of but benefits from in many ways. This is a tough role for an actress and Ferguson gives it everything and comes out a constant winner. Of course it is a combat that has no loser but even so she is on top by the second act conclusion.
Her rival, or other half's other half, Leah, is played beautifully by Hanna Heller. A woman so different from Theo, Leah is brash, bold and beautiful. She perceives Lyman's lie to her as a betrayal of faith and yet she becomes so possessive of him that it is clear that whether she knows it or not, she is in his camp, on his side in this. Her journey to acceptance is much longer and harder than Theo's and yet from the outset, as played by Heller who is always battling authority to take her place at her husband's side, we know that Leah will also win out in the end. Heller has a marvelous way of moving and looking, almost animal in her vigilance actually, that gives Leah a very different aspect from the first wife. We root for her in a different way and, thanks to the playwright and director jointly, we are thrilled at where she goes and how she gets there.
Ana Anderson plays Bessie wonderfully and adds the dimension of anger and guilt that neither wife can bring to the fore. Richard Howe is Tom, the attorney, who cannot sympathize with his client, perhaps because he prefers the company of Theo, but who must remain neutral for professional reasons. Howe gives some added viewpoint to the character, just through tone of voice. As Nurse Logan, Cheryl Howard delivers a portrait that is just right.
Howe has also designed a set that is both functional and beautiful in a simple way. David V. Groupe gives good light and smart snow projections and Ursula McCarty has provided the right costumes to show us the basic characteristics of each character. Cory Wheat's sound design worked, even when it was a bit abrupt and disruptive.
I am a Miller fan. This is a great play. It isn't done often enough and it hasn't always been done this well. I would urge anyone interested in provocative, innovative and arresting theater to see this quickly. It's too brief a run.
The Ride Down Mount Morgan plays at Oldcastle Theatre Company, 331 Main Street, Bennington, Vermont through October 23. For information and tickets call the box office at 802-447-0564 or go on line at www.oldcastletheatre.org.