MEDICINE WOMEN

Arthur Miller appears to have gained some wisdom in his old age. A man has to mature a long way in his understanding of the world and of women to write a play as insightful and kind as The Last Yankee. And the Denver Center Theatre Company has imported the right cast and the best director (Anthony Powell) for the job.

The play is set in a psychiatric hospital in New England. Clinical depression has claimed two ladies--Patty at the onset of middle age, Karen at the end of it. Their husbands meet in the waiting room and the story opens there, with the two men trying to relate over their mutual distress.

Patty's husband, Leroy, is a descendant of Alexander Hamilton himself. But unlike his illustrious forebear, Leroy is a carpenter and a workingman. His tastes are simple, his financial worries many and his family large. His wife's illness is not merely an inconvenience, it's a disaster. Karen's husband, John, on the other hand, is a successful businessman with no bills, no children and no real worries.

Patty has gone off her pills without telling the doctor or her husband. It's the first time she has been "clean" of antidepressants in fifteen years, and her clearheadedness has brought about a profound change in her outlook and in her ability to master her own thought. She is more willing to confront her disappointments and face the very nature of human experience, with all its disillusionments and sorrows. Karen is still medicated, and her mind leaps from subject to subject. But through Patty's loving encouragement, she, too, begins to mend a little--until her husband comes to visit.

Likable enough in his own way, John is troubled and embarrassed by his wife's illness. He may or may not love her, but he definitely is insensitive to what she needs and is the evident cause of her continued descent into depression. John is also something of a snob--he can hardly believe that Leroy is a mere carpenter. And though he professes to admire Leroy's work (most recently, the exquisite restoration of a church), he condescends to him. Leroy, meanwhile, is stubborn, independent and proud--the last Yankee, with all the self-reliance and willful disregard for others that that title implies. His qualities might have made him the hero of a nineteenth-century novel, but in the late twentieth century, they just don't fit.

Patty has just cause to be depressed (both of her beloved brothers committed suicide), and she suffers from her husband's rigidity. But she comes to see her husband and her life a little differently in the most important moment of the play: when John reveals himself to be an insensitive lout to Karen. The contrast between the men is unmistakable. However Patty's husband may have fallen short, Leroy's devotion is real, his goodness evident. And Patty might never have noticed the difference if she had stayed medicated.

These four are frail and faulty human beings. But simple decency has a way of rising to the surface. And what Leroy, Patty and Karen share is faithful generosity. Karen hasn't much of a chance for recovery; Patty also has a long way to go, but her own hard work and her husband's loyalty give her an edge her friend will never have.

Robynn Rodriguez creates a complex and real human being in Patty--her mood swings are harsh and authentic, her gentle revelations of character and perception striking. Robert Sicular as the frustrated Leroy brings layers of feeling--from anguish to resignation to hope--with perfect ease and inventive style. Dee Maaske is the moving embodiment of a fragile mind divorced from meaning, and Victor Raider-Wexler gives a subtle, smart reading of a difficult role as John.

Arthur Miller has earned his stature as the grand old man of the American theater, and he has always served the language well. But there is something nobler in this piece than in most of his work. The compassion for women in The Last Yankee is unequaled in his other plays, while his understanding of complicated human motives has evolved dramatically. Miller uses mental illness as a metaphor here for the whole mess in which our culture is mired, and he has taken on one of the psychiatric establishment's most disturbing proclivities: the "shut the bitch up" mentality that may use medication to quiet a terrified woman but cannot heal her. Most important, without ever using the word in the play, he asserts that love itself--coupled with rigorous honesty--does heal.

 
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