A couple of years ago, playwright Arthur Miller sounded something of a death knell for commercial theater when he remarked, "The theater culture on Broadway is dead. You can't expect people to pay forty, fifty, sixty, a hundred dollars to sit down for a straight play." Ironically, the acerbic dramatist probably had no way of knowing that his 1955 classic A View From the Bridge would later enjoy an acclaimed revival on the Great White Way featuring a Tony Award-winning portrayal by leading man Anthony LaPaglia.
And even though Miller's latest Broadway triumph is scheduled to end its successful run next month, the playwright's unique brand of alchemy continues to fascinate elsewhere. Earlier this summer, for instance, local spectators were held rapt by the Central City Opera's mesmerizing production of Douglas Ward's opera The Crucible, which is based on Miller's most-produced play. And theatergoers can sample the Boulder Repertory Company's excellent production of two one-act plays by Miller now on stage at the Boulder Public Library Auditorium. Thanks mostly to the sharp insight of actor and director Frank Georgianna, the humorous, sometimes moving evening serves as another shining example of the 82-year-old Miller's ability to give poetic expression to the everyday concerns of ordinary folk.
Written in 1988, I Can't Remember Anything chronicles the mercurial relationship between two elderly neighbors, Leo (Georgianna) and Leonora (Sara Lu Diller), whose common need for companionship threatens to eclipse their more important struggle toward self-sufficiency. Beset with failing and unreliable memories, Leo and Leonora each react differently to the challenge of maintaining a positive attitude while living in a world that appears to grow darker every day. "This country is being ruined by greed and mendacity, and you go on hoping," the haggard, gaunt Leo mutters to the bubbly, tippling Leonora. A widow twelve years older than her late husband's best friend, Leonora quickly responds to Leo's grumbling in what we assume to be part of their normal routine together: She entices him to join her in a samba dance in the middle of the retired architect's living room.
To their credit, the veteran performers deliver amusing, nuanced portrayals as the decades-old friends whose own insecurities prevent them from enjoying a healthy relationship. As they alternately confront and shy away from a few of the terrible truths that form the basis of that friendship, Diller and Georgianna don't simply face an occasional beyond-the-grave issue; they evoke the tragic consequences of old age. The actors personalize a universal human experience and permit each character's eloquence to speak for itself, as Georgianna does near the close of the play: "He does what's within him to do, just like you and everyone else, until it all comes to an end," Leo says gently of one of the couple's mutual friends. And during such fleeting moments of poignancy, the two well-matched actors almost seem to revel in--and sometimes beautifully surrender to--the debilitating symbiosis that underscores their characters' fifty-minute duet.
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After intermission, the evening's chamber-music tone continues with The Last Yankee, Miller's seventy-minute work from 1993 about two men from radically different backgrounds who desperately try to cope as their wives battle depression behind the walls of a state mental institution. As the stirring strains of an Aaron Copland suite fade out, we're introduced to Leroy Hamilton (Tom Pavey), an itinerant Yankee carpenter who's a direct descendant of Alexander Hamilton, and John Frick (Georgianna), a shrewd and self-made New England businessman. After a short scene in which the two men trade opinions about the treatment their wives are receiving (Frick declares that a yearly stay for his mate would likely cost taxpayers at least $50,000, and he derides the hospital's doctors, saying, "I'm sure you'd have to tip them"), the action shifts to a small recreation room, where we meet Patricia Hamilton (Therese Pickard) and Karen Frick (Irene Lalich). There the addled women discuss the pros and cons of voluntarily leaving the ward that afternoon or staying behind to endure an untold number of harrowing (albeit medicated) days and nights. In due time, the four adults all rationalize the gut-wrenching decisions they will have to make. As one character wryly notes, "Anybody with any sense in this country has got to be depressed."
For the most part, Georgianna's direction is once again on target, as is his well-crafted portrait of the sometimes brutally pragmatic Frank. As the flighty Karen, Lalich locates a barely perceptible iron will that shines brightest when--top hat, tails and all--she performs a heartrending tap dance of truth near the end of the play. Nicely complementing Lalich's efforts is Pickard, who invests her portrayal of the vacillating Patricia with a different sort of determination. Murmuring that her parents expected her to be wonderful but that she's somehow become "a disappointment," Pickard beautifully conveys Patricia's yearning to finally face reality without the benefit of medication. And despite the fact that Pavey doesn't even attempt to replicate a New England accent for his dyed-in-the-chowder artisan, the talented actor nonetheless imbues Leroy with an appropriate mixture of Yankee-style self-reliance, reticence and persistence.
All of which, combined with the BRC's reasonable admission price of $10, are healthy signs for that marvelous Miller invalid known as the straight play.
I Can't Remember Anything and The Last Yankee, presented by the Boulder Repertory Company through August 30 at the Boulder Public Library Auditorium, 1000 Canyon Boulevard, Boulder, 449-7258.