The Theatreguide.London Review
The Print Room Autumn 2013
One of Arthur Miller's last plays is given a strong and moving production that is in some ways superior to the original West End staging two decades ago, in part because director Cathal Cleary realised or sensed that it isn't exactly the play Miller thought he was writing.
We're in a mental hospital in New England, where two men visit their wives who are being treated for depression. We first meet the two men, then the two women, and then all four together, and gradually come to understand at least part of the cause of the women's illness and part of its effects on others.
In published comments on the play, Miller said that, as the play's title suggests, he was hoping to depict some of the finer aspects of the American national character, particularly its optimism and determination in the face of obstacles and setbacks. But this play is no more an allegory than Death Of A Salesman, and director Cleary and the cast wisely focus on the purely human stories, which are really more about gender than nationality.
One of the women was raised with unrealistically high standards and expectations, and can't accept her husband's more modest ambitions and ability to find joy in the simpler satisfactions of life without feeling that she has somehow failed. The other is overwhelmed by the rough energy of the self-made millionaire that is her husband, and feels an incompetent failure next to him.
With an insight shared by other American masters like O'Neill and Williams, Miller recognises that such people will inevitably and tragically talk at cross purposes, harming each other as much with their expressions of love as with their moments of bitterness, so that the one wife's attempts to urge her husband toward more ambition can't help coming out as nagging and the other husband's attempts to buck up his wife sound crass and unfeeling.
The play also captures two gender-specific limitations that the end of the last century had over-optimistically hoped it had moved beyond. Both women define themselves entirely in terms of their men, the one feeling tainted by what she can't help judging as his failure, the other unable to live up to his success.
And both men carry the male gene of inarticulateness about their emotions, either incapable of saying what they feel or expressing it so awkwardly that the message is lost or warped in transmission.
(And almost in passing the play also offers a damning comment on the chemical treatment of mental and emotional illness, with one woman's depression obviously exacerbated by the brain-dulling mood-enhancers she's been prescribed and the other facing the possibility of recovery only because she has chosen for the first time in years to try to face life without tranquillisers.)
All this is clear, convincing and moving in this Print Room production, thanks to sensitive direction and emotionally naked performances. Kika Markham is touching as the woman beaten down by depression and crippled by brain-addling drugs, while Andy de la Tour allows us to glimpse the real love and pain beneath her husband's rough exterior.
Paul Hickey maintains the dignity of a man who knows that happiness and self-worth need not be measured in dollars, while Matilda Ziegler carries us along on the scary but hopeful journey of a woman facing life with a clarity of mind she hasn't had in decades.
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