Arts Listings

At the Theater: Carlin Guides SF Playhouse’s ‘Ride Down Mt. Morgan’

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Friday October 06, 2006

The late Arthur Miller’s last play, The Ride Down Mt. Morgan, a kind of stereoscopic screwball marital comedy, just opened at the San Francisco Playhouse, a block off Union Square, with the fine direction of Berkeleyan Joy Carlin. 

It poses a question: do parallel lives intersect for a bigamist in eternity? 

Miller’s earlier, more famous masterpieces don’t usually strike a theatergoer as comic. As the best-known postwar American playwright who spotlighted social issues on stage, his explorations into the downside of the American Dream—All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, A View from the Bridge, The Crucible—pitted the Normal Guy ironically against both the upshot of his own dreams and the society that promoted his dreaming them. 

But the apparent seamlessness of the plain, sensible fabric that Miller spun out into his socially conscious tales has been rent a little by recent exploration as memorial productions have sprouted up in the wake of the playwright’s death last year. Death of a Salesman, in an unusual production at Altarena Playhouse earlier this year, showed a humorous side to the dysfunctional family saga, as well as the lyricism Miller spoke of which rarely finds form on stage. 

And Joy Carlin’s excellently directed version of The Price for Aurora last year brought out what Miller referred to as his response to Absurdist humor, syncopating the story of two antagonistic brothers who’ve taken different paths in life, as well as different attitudes towards their father, a failed businessman.  

The protagonist of The Ride Down Mt. Morgan, Lyman Felt (a funny allegorical name at that), is like an escapee from the asylum of Miller’s middle-aging businessman types. A successful insurance salesman, proud of building a company on what we’d now call Equal Opportunity (an achievement which he explains to a black nurse from his hospital bed), has taken an unexpected drive through a snowstorm in upstate New York, landing himself in intensive care after a wreck, where he’s visited by his two wives, each unaware of the other’s existence ... or at least current status. 

There’s evidence—shades of Willy Loman—that Lyman, who in his “second marriage” has become a risk-taker, removed a police barrier before taking his fated drive down the mountain. Was it an unconscious wish for suicide, brought on by shame at the deception he’s wrought? So Tom, his Quaker lawyer and longtime associate would like to think. 

But Lyman remains recalcitrant, perversely shameless throughout as he confronts wives, a daughter (by the first wife), lawyer—and, yes, the nurse—insisting that what he did enabled nine years of happiness for them all. Why are they condemning him?  

In a swift progression of scenes on Bill English’s set, Lyman phases in and out of memory, dream and reality, often getting up from his bed as his interlocutors address a vacant pillow, both playing possum and confronting his questioners, as he goes over the vignettes of his life, including a wry African safari in which Lyman faces down a charging lion by kvetching defiantly at him, if the King of Beasts personifies what Lyman most resents, what challenges his freedom. 

Carlin’s stellar direction is matched by the casting: Lyman’s played with a wide-eyed leer at life by actor and playwright Victor Talmadge. His “trophy wife,” Theo Felt, a formerly pious, correct New Englander, is brilliantly delineated as she comes apart into her constituent elements by Karen Grassle, familiar from TV’s “Little House On The Prairie,” but also as a veteran of San Francisco’s fabled Actor’s Workshop. 

The “second wife,” Leah is played with spunk by a familiar figure on Bay Area stages (and the director’s talented daughter), Nancy Carlin. Keith Burkhardt presents a forthright, scrupulously ethical Tom, whether behind a desk or down on his knees in prayer—a marvelous straightman. Kristen Stokes as daughter Bessie runs a deliciously comic gamut from Daddy’s Girl to disappointed (and angry) ingenue. 

Marjorie Crump-Shears seems a natural for Nurse Logan, the most natural of the bunch, whose straightforward, blue collar family life Lyman valorizes ecstatically, flat on his back and shaking his head at the thought of it. 

“Why does anyone stay together once they realize who they’re with?” she asks. 

For producing Joy Carlin’s deft realization of a problem play gone a little wild ( Miller’s “old man’s tale,” as he regards his characters with kind detachment, as though they were in a terrarium), Bill English and Susi Damilano of the SF Playhouse deserve enormous credit. This is a final piece by an important playwright who even now still displays new facets of his multiplex vision of American life. 




Through Nov. 4 at the San Francisco Playhouse, 588 Sutter St. (near Powell Street). $36. (415) 677-9596.