Huntington's "Fall": The Price

Joanne Kelly, Josh Stamberg, Nolan James Tierce, Joanna Glushak & John Hikock in "Fall"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

"My name is Daniel Miller”; with those simple words of self-identification, the central character in a new play, Fall, by Bernard Weinraub, being given its world premiere in Boston by Huntington Theatre Company, begins this compelling depiction of a complicated father and son relationship. The father is famed playwright Arthur Miller (Josh Stamberg), best known for works that dealt with fathers and sons, and their mutual responsibility toward one another. Thus it came as quite an ironic revelation when a 2007 Vanity Fair article first made public one of Miller's deepest secrets, namely that for decades he and his third wife Inge Morath (Joanne Kelly) kept the fate of their son in the shadows, never sharing the stark reality that their son was born with Down Syndrome. That Daniel's birth was kept private should in no way be surprising, as it was generally considered in those days to be in a child's best interest to be brought up by specialists (in other words, institutionalized). It also reflected the profound shame that led to their decision about the 1996 birth of Daniel (Nolan James Tierce). Though identified a century prior by Dr. John Down, it was generally misunderstood. The Millers were advised, here in the person of their physician Dr. Wise (Joanna Glushak) to have the child placed in institutions and did precisely that, as did most parents at the time. What Arthur Miller did subsequently, however, is the crux of Weinraub's play: he not only never spoke publicly about their decision, but he essentially erased their son's very existence.

Josh Stamberg & Joanne Kelly in "Fall"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Though based on real-life events, the play is a fictionalized vision of the challenge faced by these two well-meaning parents. It portrays a true American tragedy in its failure both as a community and as individuals to deal responsibly with the dilemma that well-meaning people encountered in a less informed era. It speaks to the inherent shame and guilt that drove parents virtually to deny reality, and caused the Millers to leave their story untold. Weinraub chooses to imagine the motivations behind the public facade. In so doing he takes on the daunting task of creating imagined dialog and incidents, which is always problematic when dealing with high profile characters. There exists an inherent challenge in filling in such illustrious blanks where the factual and the fictional are so intertwined.

Weinraub largely succeeds in his attempt to present the complexities faced by a celebrated couple. He does so by including in his storytelling the real-life role of Miller's frequent producer, Robert Whitehead (John Hickok), who serves to illustrate for an audience what life was like for a respected playwright whose career had the usual highs and lows. Weinraub mostly avoids the pitfalls of other such “and then I wrote” dramatizations, while succeeding in informing theatergoers of the historical markers of Miller's journey of denial. He also uses the professional life of renowned photographer Morath as analogous to their private issues, as when she reveals how she captures the moment when her subjects truly reveal themselves. At the same time, Weinraub utilizes the character of Dr. Wise to show the gradual growth in understanding in the medical world.

Josh Stamberg, Joanne Kelly & John Hikock in "Fall"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

For most of this play, Daniel is not merely marginalized but basically forgotten. The focus is on Arthur's career as a reluctant celebrity, which allows Weinraub to interject some memorable humor, much of it topical, as when, bemoaning her son's Republicanism including working for Bush 43, Dr. Wise declares “it can't get any worse than Bush”. This is balanced by references to Nazi Germany's gassing of “mongoloids” as undesirable and “disposable”, and Arthur's life-long political activism in the era of McCarthy. And there is an ever-present cloud hovering over the Millers, expressed by Inge in words with which Arthur could easily identify: “we're going to pay a price for this”.

And so they did, not least in denying to themselves the opportunity to appreciate just how remarkable their son was. As briefly and beautifully enacted by Tierce (an actor self-identified as having Down Syndrome), the loss seems unfathomable for both parents and child, and Kelly complements with her poised phlegmatic portrait of a conflicted spouse and mother with moments of utter despair at her own version of Sophie's Choice. In their significant supporting roles, both Glushak and Hickok provide the story with depth and context. But it's Stamberg's choice that drives the play, a difficult task in humanizing an introvert agonizing over his guilt as a father at letting someone down and consequent shame at its permanent baring of his soul, leading to the “revenge” of a son. In the end it's Daniel's revenge to live an undeniably remarkable life.

Nolan James Tierce in "Fall"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

This production also succeeds on the creative level, with taut direction by Peter DuBois, some ingeniously fluid Scenic Design by Brandon McNeel, apt Costume Design by Ilona Somogyi, effective Lighting Design by Philip Rosenberg, Original Music and Sound Design by John Gromada, and Projection Design by Zachary Borovay.

This is one of Huntington's finest original works. Weinraub owes the entire small cast and creative crew a huge vote of thanks, as they manage to engage us in these roles even when some scenes could use some trimming. For a play that is being shared with an audience for the first time, however, it too is remarkable.

You may catch this Fall from grace through June 16th at the South End's Calderwood Pavilion.

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