By Arthur Miller
Directed by Sean Holmes
Venue: Donmar Theatre
Date: Saturday 29th March 2008
As is typical with Steve and me, we hadn’t a clue about this play as we headed for London. Who wrote it, who was in it, what it was about, etc. All gone. That’s what happens when we book tickets months ahead and then get on with our lives. So it’s often a great pleasure when we do turn up to see the production and find it’s by one of our favourite playwrights, and the cast is dripping with talent, as it was today. I like my life.
This is an early Miller play, almost the first thing he wrote, and the first performed on Broadway, although for a mere four performances (program notes are wonderful things). The plot concerns a father and two brothers – typical Miller. The elder brother David seems to be blessed with unbelievable luck. He doesn’t just land on his feet, he lands smack bang in the middle of a red carpet, and finds riches and everything he could ever want thrust upon him apparently without the slightest effort on his part. His brother Amos has been indoctrinated by their father to become a top class baseball pitcher, and as he doesn’t seem to have much else going for him, that skill looks to be his ticket to a good life. Sadly, though, things don’t work out, because the father’s fixation has actually contributed to weaknesses in the son’s game that prevent him making the big time.
Meantime David has gone from good to better. His girlfriend’s father, implacably opposed to David having anything to do with his daughter, has been killed in a freak accident, leaving David and Hester free to marry. A friend brings along a relative to get his car fixed at the garage David works at – he’s got a reputation for being a genius at fixing cars – and when David hasn’t a clue what’s wrong with the thing, never having had any training, along comes an immigrant mechanic who can tell just by listening to the engine noise what the problem is. He not only identifies the problem, he even does the whole repair (replacing the crankshaft), to allow David to get some much-needed sleep. This mechanic starts up his own repair business just along from where David works, but despite the better location, ends up running out of money and working for David, who by now has a farm, courtesy of Hester’s late father, also the garage, a petrol station (which just happens to be on a new main road that’s being built) and probably some other assets that I couldn’t quite keep track of.
David is so convinced that he’s living in a Greek tragedy, that’s he’s expecting some major problems to happen to balance all the good things in his life. As time goes on, and the successes accumulate, the pressure builds, and he starts to go a bit crazy. He’s convinced that he and Hester won’t be able to have children – that that’s the way “fate” will nobble his happiness. He’s a real miseryguts when he puts his mind to it. Anyway, Hester does get pregnant, but that doesn’t help, as David can’t believe it’ll be born OK. Hester had a fall during the pregnancy, which might have damaged the baby, and there’s a lot of tension during the birth, as all the men wait downstairs to hear the news. A scatty aunt is fetching and carrying to help the doctor and midwife, and would no doubt have passed on some news to them all if she’d had anything to tell. The doctor, wise man, refuses to tell her anything, so her lack of information just makes things worse. Eventually, there’s a great cry, presumably the birth pains, and the men assume the worst. The aunt appears, crying, and very emotional, and it looks like David’s luck has finally run out. Of course not! It’s a boy, and a healthy one at that. David is in despair – he thought losing the baby would prevent his mink from dying off (it’s complicated, but he’s also become a mink farmer).
Finally, with David avoiding his own son, the wife strategically fails to pass on a message about some dodgy feed, in the hope that the mink will all die off, and David will somehow become the happy-go-lucky fellow she married (and she thinks David is crazy). Also, the mechanic is leaving, as he can’t take being around a man who’s so sure that he hasn’t earned or deserved all the good things that have come to him. The saving of the mink finally hammers home this point to us, if not entirely to him. He had been told to check the feed before giving it to the animals, so he did. He saw some little black specks on some of the fish, so he threw those away and only used the clean ones. His own carefulness and willingness to be thorough was what saved him. At last, he’s able to let go of his millstone and accept his son, along with his other many blessings. Ah.
It’s a strange story in many ways, more stylised than many of Miller’s plays, but still very interesting. The performances were all excellent, although the accents wandered a bit from the straight and narrow at times. I felt very moved by Amos’s anguish as he acknowledged the judgement of the baseball scout, that he’d never make the grade as a professional because he couldn’t play the bases. His whole life had been built on one thing, and now that was taken away from him. In the penultimate scene, with the father taking his leave, Amos turns up to give David the takings from the petrol station that he’s now working at, and completely ignores his father.
There was also quite a lot of humour, and I did like the old style car that was dropped down on wires for the repairing scenes. Not Miller’s best, but still an enjoyable afternoon.
© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me