Some memories waft into view from a lazy distance. Others brew slowly in the back of the mind. No such luck for Quentin, whose trip down memory lane isn’t so much a stroll as a triathlon, elbowed from all sides by the family, friends, and lovers of days gone by. If he runs off track from time to time, caught up in the flashes of what he might have done and said, we can hardly blame him.
Arthur Miller’s 1964 drama is ambitious, indulgent, and challenging — a lengthy and deeply personal opus that’s rarely produced. At Theater J, however, the results prove exceedingly artful. Even with all the ups and downs that one man’s journey can take, director Jose Carrasquillo and his superb cast hit a smooth and nimble stride. To craft a show this deftly from a script this hefty isn’t just good discipline — it’s a miracle of anti-gravity.
Quentin (Mitchell Hébert), a middle-aged lawyer pondering decades of faith and betrayal, is very much Arthur Miller himself. Similar parallels aren’t hard to spot: his good pal Mickey (Tim Getman) echoes the famous director Elia Kazan, and his second wife Maggie (Gabriela Fernández-Coffey) is a ringer for Marilyn Monroe.
But like any good play, Quentin’s retrospective stands on its own merit. Grounded in the political realities of post-WWII life, his story traces numerous chapters of American life with thoughtful fingers. We witness him face, among other things, the tall shadows of his parents, the ache of his two failed marriages, and the alarming injustices of the Hollywood blacklist.
An aging hero might take the luxury of forgetting certain painful truths. “But look at my life,” Quentin says. “A life, after all, is evidence.” And indeed, there’s nothing gauzy about Quentin’s ghosts. They play on him like an insistent hum, turning his so-called safe space into an electric echo chamber of doubts and confusions. As he takes a step back from his memories to narrate outward — a constant compulsion — other characters frequently step forward to interrupt, tugging Quentin back into the thick of the action.
Is his aloofness borne of arrogance, or merely self-defense? Perhaps both. Even though Quentin can step away, he can’t bear to leave. He may detach himself enough from a memory to pace its wide circumference, but he’s leashed to it nonetheless.
Much of the show’s agility springs, ironically enough, from how closely and complexly Quentin remains fused to his friends and lovers. He seems, by the end, less like a man stepping into his past than he does a man trying to step back from the overwhelming present.
Which is, naturally, much more exciting. Especially with co-stars that impress as much as Jennifer Mendenhall does as the shy, lovely Holga, or Kimberly Schraf as both Quentin’s mother and his first wife Louise. Fernández-Coffey, for her part, is wonder unto herself, playing Maggie’s evolution from kittenish innocent to voracious starlet with astonishing grace and precision.
There is, most definitely, a wrong way to produce After The Fall, and it would be in casting a Quentin who knows how to talk but not how to listen back. Hébert, to his ample credit, knows that all narrative directed at the audience must be treated as a two-way conversation, and he holds our full attention for nearly three hours with a skillful range of comedy, charm, and keen honesty. It’s in the active, urgent gauging of his own culpability — how he sounds, and how the decisions he makes affect those closest to him — that we learn to track the inner rhythms of Quentin’s conscience.
Surrounding him, Carrasquillo has won a sort of endurance test for stylized staging. Setting a play in someone’s head ain’t so easy. But Theater J’s smallish playing space is truly maximized here, and the troubled terrain of the mind is brought into sharp, clear focus. Quentin’s terminal line of thinking finds double meaning on Tony Cisek’s set: a cool and airy airport, shaped by steel and black stone. A large upstage window serves as an eye to the outside world, animated by Dan Covey’s vibrant light shifts and Klyph Stanford’s intriguingly blurry projections. The characters flow constantly — often, thanks to Ivania Stack’s meticulous costuming, entering in a new set of clothes moments after exiting.
But the most powerful feature of the set may be the several small steps between levels, which allow actors the power to step constantly between reality and dreamy removal. In this way, a show that might have been foggy headwork instead becomes a swirling showcase. “How few the days are that hold the mind in place,” sighs Hébert. But such flux proves to be Miller’s master stroke. When shaped by the kind of love and care shown by Carrasquillo and his ensemble, a life so examined is a life worth sharing.
After the Fall runs thru Nov 27, 2011 at Theater J, 1529 16th St NW, Washington, DC.
After The Fall
Written by Arthur Miller
Directed by Jose Carrasquillo
Produced by Theater J
Reviewed by Hunter Styles
Running time: Approx. 2 hrs and 45 min with one intermission