Theater J’s “After the Fall” by Arthur Miller

Because my family’s busy schedule, we did not have a chance to see Theater J’s production of “after the Fall” until this afternoon, the last day of the run. (There was a final performance this evening, beginning less than two hours after the end of the matinee. How the actors, and particularly two of the leads, will be able to re-energize themselves for tonight’s almost three hour performance is beyond a simple mystery.)

Usually, when I leave a theater, I know what I think of a play. I am not certain, however, what I think of “After the Fall”, and would need to see it again (and perhaps again again) to make up my mind.

This, however, fits with the central character of the play, Quentin, a big firm lawyer with a communist past, and two former wives, who is confused about every thing in his past, and equally confused about his future. Of course, Arthur Miller was a playwright, not a lawyer, but he did have a communist past, as well as two former wives. Was he confused? Was he Quentin?

Miller denied that this was an autobiographical play, of course, and denied it vehemently and consistently, but – although he is touted as the moral exemplar of American theater – who really believed him. Elia Kazan, who directed the Broadway premier, and who has been suspected to have been the model for another character in the play, has contradicted Miller on this issue, saying that Miller, second wife Marilyn Monroe, and Kazan himself were models for the play.

It cannot be an easy play to produce, because, although there are two distinct acts, there are no separate scenes, and the play does not run chronologically, but in short episodes that move forward and backwards in time. Quentin is, I believe, on stage throughout, dealing with his mother and father, his brother, his two wives, his former communist friends, and his new German girlfriend. (If you recall, after divorcing Monroe, Miller married a third time, to Inge Morath, an Austrian photographer; this was a long lasting marriage.)

Quentin is confused when his legal career is threatened by his communist past and the then current activities of the McCarthyites in Congress, and by his failed first marriage, which started out with some promise, but ended with accusations that Quentin ignored his wife, did not understand her feelings, could not communicate with her, and that their relationship not only had no future, but that it hardly had a past. Quentin’s response was, on the one hand, confusion (how could this have happened?) and on the other hand, guilt (it must have been my fault……somehow).

He had met his second wife, Maggie, on a park bench. She was a lost young woman, with limited intelligence, not able to really take care of herself. Quentin was still in his first marriage at the time, and did not have any sort of relationship, physical or otherwise, with Maggie, but after his divorce, something happened (if it’s in the play, I missed it) and Maggie winds up a singer and a sensation, and soon Quentin and Maggie wind up man and wife. As Maggie’s success increases, she shows signs of emotional instability, becomes dependent on pills and alcohol, begins to miss rehearsals and performances, fires Quentin as her lawyer and blames him for many of her problems. Of course, there marriage also falls apart. For Quentin, this is deja vu – as he said, he married two very different women, and the marriages ended in exactly the same ways.

As the marriages failed, other things were going on because of the political climate. Eventually, Quentin is fired by her law firm. Again, his past, his (now, to him) meaningless legal career, his continuing rootlessness, all feed on his confusion and on his guilt.

This is an extraordinarily complex psychological play, and presents extraordinary challenges for the cast and director. If I see it again, I would like to see how another cast would do it. I can see it being done very differently.

This is not to be critical of Theater J’s production. The cast does a sterling job, particular Mitch Hebert as Quentin, and Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey as Maggie. Hebert, who both acts and narrates, runs the gamut of emotions, from understated to over-the-top. I am not sure that his more out-of-control reactions are necessary (although they are effective and extremely well done); I would like to see a less excitable Quentin some time. Fernandez-Coffey, on the other hand, starts out as an overstated naive young woman and ends up a drunken loud-mouth; I think she did it just right.

So, back to Arthur Miller, another complex character. He wrote this play in 1961, after he divorced Marilyn Monroe, but before her suicide. It was produced on Broadway in 1964, after the suicide. (In the play, Maggie does not die.)
He had met Inge Morath before the play was written. He had already testified on his communist past, refusing to name names. But his friend Elia Kazan did name names, just as the character Mickey was to do in the play.

Now, back to my earlier question? Was Miller confused? Was he suffused by guilt? I don’t know enough about him to know the answer to those questions. But what about Miller as a symbol of morality and integrity in the American theater? Clearly, Miller was not such in his personal life. While Quentin may not have had sexual relationships with women while he was married to another, Miller did. And then there is the odd story of Miller’s Down Syndrome son, whom he institutionalized virtually at birth and, until quite late in his life, had nothing to do with, and kept secret.

Yet his plays do discuss high ethical and moral issues – and perhaps this was to cover up the confusion and the guilt from which he may have been suffering.


One thought on “Theater J’s “After the Fall” by Arthur Miller

  1. To crticise Hebert, who “runs the gamut of emotions, from understated to over-the-top,” by questioning whether his more over-the-top reactions are necessary suggests to me that the reviewer must be one abnormally even-keeled, bland person. Has he never gotten in an arguement with someone with whom he has a relationship and lost it emotionally as the two of them push each others buttons and confront their frustrations with each other?
    Quentin was by in large understated and his over-the-top moments were perfectly played and necessary. The acting by Hebert, especially in those emotionally charged moments, was super.

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