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The Crucible
by Arthur Miller
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Stray Dog Theatre
February 7, 2019

Gerry Love, Chrissie Watkins, Chuck Lavazzi, Graham Emmons, Cynthia Pohlson
Photo by Dan Donovan
Stray Dog Theatre

First it’s Henrik Ibsen, and now it’s Arthur Miller. Stray Dog Theatre has been having a lot of success with productions of classic plays lately. This time, instead of 19th Century Norwegian plays, like its excellent productions of A Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler, the company has turned to the work of a legendary 20th Century American playwright and one of his best known works, The Crucible. Like the first of the aforementioned Ibsen plays, The Crucible is a play I had read but never seen. Now, at Stray Dog’s Tower Grove Abbey, I’ve seen it, and it’s a remarkable success.

This is a long play, with four acts and running about three and a half hours. It’s also a large cast for SDT, and a heavy subject matter, with Miller’s portrayal of the historical Salem Witch Trials told through the lens of 1950s McCarthyism. It’s not a precisely accurate account of the trials themselves, but this is more of a parable about the dangers of groupthink, peer pressure, overreaching government control, and more. The story starts as the Reverend Samuel Parris (Ben Ritchie), a respected pastor in the community, discovers some local girls dancing in the woods, including his young daughter, Betty (Avery Smith) and his orphaned  teenaged niece, Abigail Williams (Alison Linderer). Soon, other teenage girls from the community are identified, as well as Tituba (Kelli Wright), who Parris brought back from Barbados as a slave, and although she is initially suspected as the instigator it soon becomes clear that somebody else is in charge. There’s also Reverend John Hale (Abraham Shaw), a minister from a neighboring town who is brought in to investigate the charges of witchcraft and demonic influence, which eventually affects the whole village, particularly farmer John Proctor (Graham Emmons) and his wife, Elizabeth (Cynthia Pohlson)–who had recently dismissed Abigail from their employment–and Mary Warren (Chrissie Watkins), who now works for the Proctors and is a good friend of Abigail’s. Other prominent members of the community and church, including the highly respected Rebecca Nurse (Suzanne Greenwald) and the wife of landowner Giles Corey (Gerry Love) are suspected, with the accusations coming from Abigail and her friends, as well as influential landowners Thomas and Ann Putnam (Tom Moore and Laura Kyro). When prominent judges and officials Judge Hathorne (Jonathan Hey) and Deputy-Governer Danforth (Joe Hanrahan) become involved in the trials, it seems like most of the authorities are more interested in reputation and the process then in the truth.

The play is carefully constructed, introducing the main characters gradually and building the drama as each act progresses, with some particularly intense moments in the courtroom and with a memorable, devastating conclusion. The casting at SDT is especially strong, led by the poignant performances of Emmons and Pohlson as the conflicted Proctor and Elizabeth. Their relationship, strained at first, develops with believable emotion and chemistry. Linderer, as the initially enigmatic, manipulative Abigail, is also excellent, with some particularly strong moments in scenes with Emmons and with her friends/followers in the courtroom. There are also standout performances from Watkins as the conflicted Mary Warren, Hanrahan as the authoritarian Danforth, Shaw as the concerned and conflicted Hale, Greenwald as the noble Rebecca Nurse, Love as the determined Giles Gory, and more. It’s an especially strong ensemble, and the staging is well-paced and emotionally balanced, with the intense moments set up appropriately and significant time given to the more quiet moments as well.

Technically, this production is powerful, as well, with a striking, somewhat abstract set by Josh Smith and realistic costumes by Amy Hopkins. The lighting by Tyler Duenow and sound by Justin Been are also strong, with a poignant (if sometimes overdone) use of background music. The production design works well in emphasizing the historical basis of the play as well as it’s timely and timeless themes.

The Crucible is a classic, relevant in its time and just as relevant in contemporary times, when its various issues are especially applicable. With this production, SDT and director Gary F. Bell have assembled an exceptional cast for an immediate, intense and fascinating production. It’s another powerful staging of a classic by Stray Dog Theatre.

Cast of The Crucible
Photo by Dan Donovan
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting The Crucible at Tower Grove Abbey until February 23, 2019

 

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All My Sons
by Arthur Miller
Directed by Seth Gordon
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Patrick Ball, John Woodson, Mairin Lee Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Patrick Ball, John Woodson, Mairin Lee
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep’s next entry in their 50th anniversary season is an American classic by one of the greatest playwrights of the 20th Century, Arthur Miller. Although I had seen and read several of Miller’s plays before, for some reason All My Sons had evaded me until now. I’m glad that it’s this production that serves as my introduction. It’s a period specific story that can’t really be updated, as tied to World War II and mid-20th Century American ideals as it is. It would be easy to approach this play as something of a history lesson or artifact. Director Seth Gordon and his first-rate cast and crew, however, will not let us do that. This production celebrates Miller’s brilliant text by bringing it to vibrant, emotional, challenging life.

This is a time-specific story definitely, but many of its themes are timeless. The hard working father and factory owner Joe Keller (John Woodson) has spent his life building a business and taking care of his family’s material needs, and he hopes to leave a legacy that will be continued by his son Chris (Patrick Ball). Chris is a World War II vet whose unseen older brother Larry, presumed to be killed years earlier in the war, is still remembered and revered by his parents, especially his mother Kate (Margaret Daly), who insists that Larry will return to his family some day. The idealistic Chris sees a future not necessarily in business but with Ann (Mairin Lee), who had been engaged to Larry. Ann and her brother George (Zac Hoogendyk) grew up next door to the Kellers but moved away after their father, an assistant of Joe’s at the factory, had gone to prison for approving the delivery of faulty airplane cylinder heads and ultimately causing the death of 21 pilots during the war. Joe had also been to prison but had been exonerated, and he tries to maintain his own high standing in the community. The neighbors love Joe. Chris idolizes Joe, but Joe is hiding something that could be devastating to him, his family, and everyone close to him.

This is a moral dilemma story but also a rich, detailed portrait and critique of its time. Miller’s sharp, incisive and natural-sounding dialogue makes these characters and their world live and breathe, and there’s humor but also palpable tension. There’s a vivid picture of a family dealing with loss, some wanting to move on and others not able to. There are the highly influential Kellers and their neighbors who live in their shadow, including men with dreams they can’t fulfill, like neighbor and doctor Jim Bayliss (Jim Ireland), and women whose lives are tied to the social and financial stability of their husbands, like Jim’s resentful wife Sue (Amy Hohn) and George’s former sweetheart Lydia (Emily Kunkel), who has settled down with the dependable but unexciting Frank (Grant Fletcher Prewett). It’s a world where financial status and social standing can take precedence over ideals and genuine care. It’s a world where people who have had their lives damaged by war desperately try to find new hope and build lives that mean something.

This is a modern tragedy centered on the likable but obviously flawed character of Joe, who is remarkably played by Woodson, who conveys Joe’s affability as well as the increasing desperation of his situation. Daly is just as effective as Kate, so devoted to her son’s memory and living in determined, devoted denial. Ball as Chris is excellent as the handsome, charming, idealistic son who is devoted to his family but wants more from life than what his father can give him. He has strong chemistry with Lee, who gives a strong but somewhat affected performance as Ann. There’s also strong support from Ireland who conveys an underlying sadness to the character of Jim, Hohn as the somewhat spiteful Sue, Kunkel as the good-natured Lydia, and Hoogendyk as the determined but conflicted George. It’s a strong ensemble, serving Miller’s brilliant script well, with Seth Gordon’s direction perfectly pitched, as the sense of tension builds in intensity and leaves a profound, lasting impact.

Technically, the production is extremely impressive, with a set by Michael Ganio that is so well-realized, realistic and somewhat fantastical at the same time, as the superb lighting by Peter E. Sargent highlights an important aspect of the set at just the right moments in the play to help reveal an important underlying theme. There’s also excellent sound design by Rusty Wandall and remarkably detailed, just-right period costumes by Myrna Colley-Lee, helping to augment the authenticity of the time and place.

All My Sons is a classic for good reason. It’s a story of post-war America, but its themes are just as powerful today as they were seventy years ago. As presented at the Rep, this play’s power and urgency are made all the more effective by the remarkable performances and staging. It’s a truly stunning production.

Margaret Daly, Mairin Lee Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Margaret Daly, Mairin Lee
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting All My Sons until January 29th, 2017. 

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Death of a Salesman
by Arthur Miller
Directed by Wayne Loui
Insight Theatre Company
September 11, 2014

Susie Wall, John Contini, Matthew Linhardt, Jason Contini Photo by John Lamb Insight Theatre Company

Susie Wall, John Contini, Matthew Linhardt, Jason Contini
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

Death of a Salesman is one of the most celebrated works in the history of American theatre. Originally produced in 1949, it has been produced many times over the years and made into several film versions.  Strangely enough, even though I had read the play in high school and watched the 1985 TV movie starring Dustin Hoffman, I had never actually seen the play on stage before seeing this new production at Insight Theatre Company. Even though the production is set in the era in which it was written, it’s a surprisingly timely play with many themes that still resonate as strongly today as they must have 65 years ago.  This production, the closing entry in Insight’s 2014 season, is more than a fitting introduction to this masterpiece of a play. It’s a masterpiece in itself, with stirring performances and a very strong sense of time, place, and message.

Here, John Contini takes on the much-coveted role of Willy Loman, a life-worn traveling salesman at the end of his career.  Although he’s in his 60s and not as physically able as he used to be, Willy insists he’s still on the top of his game, clinging to unrealistic dreams for both himself and his disillusioned son Biff (Matthew Linhart).  Willy also has a devoted, long-suffering wife, Linda (Susie Wall) and a younger son, Happy (Jason Contini) who are concerned for him, but Willy’s hopes and dreams are tied up mostly with Biff, and with grandiose thoughts from his younger life represented by visions of his much older and long gone adventurer brother Ben (Joneal Joplin), who represents opportunity and success for Willy. Exhausted, disillusioned, but still holding onto his unrealistic dreams, Willy has taken to talking to himself and reliving his past, especially his family life in better times with his hero-worshiping sons, not understanding why Biff doesn’t look up to him the way he used to, or why Biff never lived up to the high ideals Willy had for him.  Willy’s family, in turn, worries about him and wonders what to do about Willy’s increasingly self-destructive behavior, while Biff searches to discover his own identity, Happy copes with being mostly ignored by his father, and Linda desperately hopes for peace between her husband and their sons.  Also in the mix are Willy’s successful neighbor Charley (Tom Murray) and his son Bernard (Michael Pierce), who serve as a contrast to Willy as well as an object of jealousy for him, as he wonders why they seem to have a much more fulfilling life.

There’s a lot going on in this play, and it makes a theatre geek and writer like me extremely tempted to write a long, academic essay, but that’s not what reviews are for.  There’s so much here, though, and much of it is still relevant to today, with the ideals of the elusive “American Dream” and the eternal struggle to define “success” and fulfillment in life.  It also deals with common and powerful themes of parental expectations, family responsibilities and personal integrity vs. the urge to get ahead in life.  It’s a great American tragedy, although there are glimmers of hope as well, and much to think about and discuss.  It’s not a philosophical work, though–it’s a consummately structured play, with strong, gripping and memorable dialogue and an expertly crafted plot that builds to a powerful conclusion.  It’s a heavy play, but not without moments of humor, and Insight’s production handles the pacing particularly well.

The cast here is first rate. John Contini makes a strikingly real, unquestionably self-centered but still sympathetic Willy.  His very walk shows his weariness–a shuffling, slightly limping gait that becomes more confident and energetic in the flashbacks to earlier days.  His voice can be whiny or hopeful, and his face lights up noticeably with an almost childlike glee when he’s reflecting on his dreams, and his better times with Biff, making his complete deflation in later scenes all the more poignant.  As Biff, Linhart has the right look of a former promising athlete along with a palpable weariness, confusion, and simmering anger that comes to the surface in a memorable confrontation with Willy in the second act. Jason Contini (son of John) brings a strong combination of ingratiating ambition and underlying disappointment as the more upbeat but ignored son, Happy, and Wall is devastatingly effective as the ever-devoted Linda, standing by her man and showing growing concern as he slowly but surely comes unglued.  Her last speech in the play is astonishingly effective.  There’s also strong work from Joplin as the confident, idealized Ben, Murray as the weary but supportive Charley, Pierce as the studious and eventually successful but compassionate businessman Bernard, and by Taylor Pietz as a woman Willy meets in his travels to Boston.  The entire ensemble is well-cast and on form, adding to the overall mood of of this dynamic  production.

Also adding to the overall drama of this show is its remarkable production values.  The marvelously detailed,  multi-level set, designed by Kim Wilson, caught my attention immediately, and there’s so much depth to it that each time you look, there seems to be more to see. The 1940’s atmosphere is maintained very well through the use of this incredible, richly appointed set with a muted color palette, period furniture and excellent costumes by Tracy Newcomb.  Mark Wilson’s very precise lighting adds much depth to many of the scenes, as well, and a the sparing use of atmospheric music helps set and maintain just the right mood throughout the production.

Even after all the shows I’ve seen, I still feel so privileged to witness such a consummate, immediately affecting production of a much-honored classic of theatre.  This is the kind of show that doesn’t leave me when I leave the theatre. It sits in my brain and makes me ponder and remember the sheer depth of emotion presented on stage. Director Wayne Loui and his cast and crew have done such a remarkable job of bringing a real sense of urgency to this time-honored show.  It’s the undisputed highlight of Insight’s season–a brilliant and memorable piece of theatre not to be missed.

Matthew Linhardt, Joneal Joplin, John Contini, Susie Wall Photo by John Lamb Insight Theatre Company

Matthew Linhardt, Joneal Joplin, John Contini, Susie Wall
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

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The Price
by Arthur Miller
Directed by Bruce Longworth
New Jewish Theatre
March 22, 2014

 

Jerry Vogel, Bobby Miller, Michael James Reed Photo by John Lamb New Jewish Theatre

Jerry Vogel, Bobby Miller, Michael James Reed
Photo by John Lamb
New Jewish Theatre

“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure”, or so the old saying goes.  In Arthur Miller’s 1968 play The Price, a middle-aged police officer is forced to confront not only the physical artifacts of his past, but his relationships as well, and a great deal of thought and conversation goes into the process of separating the trash from the treasure and determining what really matters, both materially and fundamentally.  As presented by the New Jewish Theatre, this classic play brings to life these questions of value and stability in a richly detailed, beautifully acted production.

The first few minutes of the play belong completely to Victor Franz (Michael James Reed), a New York City police officer on verge of retirement, as he peruses the dusty contents of the soon-to-be-demolished building where he grew up, along with his now-deceased parents and his brother Walter (Jerry Vogel), a successful surgeon with whom Victor hasn’t spoken in years.  As Victor wanders idly around and sorts through the mountains of furniture and knicknacks, he’s eventually joined by his wife Esther (Kelley Weber) and the enigmatic and endearing Gregory Solomon (Bobby Miller), an elderly semi-retired Russian-Jewish used furniture dealer with a colorful history who is here to appraise the contents of the attic and, Victor hopes, buy it and take it off Victor’s hands. This is more than just a collection of junk, however. Much of the furniture has sentimental value, but Victor doesn’t have the time or energy to deal with that, even though the cantankerous Solomon is taking his sweet time deciding on a price. When Walter eventually does show up unannounced, the brothers are forced to confront all their unspoken issues, and all the characters are presented with varying choices concerning what things, people and relationships really matter to them, as well as facing the cost of their own personal decisions and their effects on those around them.

This is a intense and highly atmospheric drama, well-punctuated by the glorious production values and strong staging.  Designed by Mark Wilson and appointed with painstaking detail, this attic set looks, feels, and sounds like a real place, reflecting both the late-1960’s era of the play’s setting as well as calling back to earlier times, most specifically the family’s affluent heyday in the 1920’s and the later drearier, gloomier reality of the Depression in the 1930’s.  Along with Michael Sullivan’s lighting design, Zoe Sullivan’s sound, and Jenny Smith’s props, this production takes us into the present and the past of this family as their story unfolds, and director Bruce Longworth’s staging and the strong acting of the superb cast brings this family’s world to life, as some of the furniture items–specifically a worn chair and an ornate, non-functioning harp–are almost given personalities as they are made to represent, respectively, the brothers’ jaded and detached father and their elegant and disappointed mother. Authentic 1920’s-era music, such as a musical “laughing record” and a routine by Vaudeville comedians Gallagher and Shean, is also used to great effect in achieving the feel of that bygone era and representing both nostalgia and regret.

The cast here is nothing short of priceless.  Longworth has assembled an immensely talented group of celebrated local actors, as fits this extremely well-written, highly detailed story.  As Victor, Reed exudes strength, weariness and, above all, an underlying sense of decency that motivates his reactions and revelations. He’s a man of missed chances, having given up a promising college career to join the police force and take care of his father, and Reed poignantly portrays his every regret, along with the remembrance of more hopeful times.  Vogel is an excellent contrast to Reed, portraying Walter with a real sense of regret but also a degree of smugness–he wants a relationship with his brother but he wants it on his own terms.  I was also particularly struck by the difficulty of Esther’s role, in that her motivations aren’t entirely clear at first, although Weber clearly portrays all of her complexity, in struggling between her deep sense of loyalty to her husband on one hand, to her near-idolization of Walter on the other hand, as well as the overarching sense of regret and yearning for a better life for herself and Victor.  The real catalyst for the action, however, and the most memorable performance in this incredibly strong cast, is Miller’s as the wise and world-weary Solomon, who provides a degree of moral direction and grounding to the other characters, especially Victor. Miller’s spot-on characterization, authentic-sounding accent, and sheer presence is apparent from his first appearance and throughout the course of the action, even when he’s bellowing at the other characters from offstage.  Even though we only get to hear a little bit about Solomon’s eventful personal history, that history is clearly embodied in Miller’s endearing performance.  There’s also a great sense of ensemble chemistry in this cast, as all of the players contribute to the energy of their cast-mates’ portrayals and the overall intensity of the the production.

Ultimately, as Arthur Miller asserts in this play, everything in life has a cost, whether monetary, emotional, relational, or a combination of these elements. The Price presents a story that seems to hang mostly on whether it’s more worth it to spend one’s life looking after others or to spend it looking after oneself, and the challenges that come from trying to figure out the balance. The play also challenges the audience to think about the emotional and nostalgic value of personal possessions and what they represent.  Although this show is set in a specific era and location, these are questions that transcend time and place. They’re questions we will all have to deal with at some point in our lives, for which this play serves as a stirring representation.  As for this remarkable production by the New Jewish Theatre, I would say it’s more than worth the ticket price and is makes for a thought and discussion-provoking evening well-spent.

Kelley Weber, Michael James reed, Bobby Miller, Jerry Vogel Photo by John Lamb New Jewish Theatre

Kelley Weber, Michael James Reed, Bobby Miller, Jerry Vogel
Photo by John Lamb
New Jewish Theatre

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The Ride Down Mount Morgan
by Arthur Miller
Directed by Bobby Miller
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
January 17, 2014

Julie Layton, John Pierson, Amy Loui Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Julie Layton, John Pierson, Amy Loui
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

The center of Lyman Felt’s universe is Lyman Felt. He’s a rich and successful insurance man with a thriving business, an active imagination, and two kids who adore him. His biggest problem is that he also has two wives, and they’ve never met each other.  That arrangement suits Lyman just fine, until he ends up in the hospital after crashing his car on an icy mountain road, and the “wrong” wife is notified, forcing a confrontation with the other wife and with the truth.  That’s the premise for Arthur Miller’s 1991 play, The Ride Down Mount Morgan, which is given an impressive production by the St. Louis Actors’ Studio, in which the greatest strengths are the cast and creative team.

This is a very thought-provoking play that is sure to prompt much discussion about marriage and the nature of commitment, as well as the importance of honesty.  Lyman is aptly named, in that his world his built on lies.  He’s a “lie-man” who is constantly talking about being “true” to himself when he’s been anything but true to those closest to him, including his first wife, proper socialite and minister’s daughter Theo (Amy Loui) and their grown daughter Bessie (Taylor Steward), as well as his younger, feistier second wife Leah (Julie Layton) and their unseen young son Benjamin.  Lyman spends much of the play confined to his hospital bed, although he frequently gets up and changes costume to participate in the various flashbacks (detailing Lyman’s history with his wives) and fantasy sequences (in which Lyman imagines his wives as giddy, gleeful old-fashioned housewives who cater to his every whim and are happy to share him).  Lyman’s world is a world of sex, lies and a thorough skepticism regarding social conventions and particularly the concept of monogamy, and with a not-so-subtle sexist slant. Through the course of the story, we learn of the effects of Lyman’s deception on his loved ones, as well as his own personal philosophies and constant quest for validation from the outside world.

It is with trepidation (and great respect) that I criticize one of the greatest playwrights of the 20th Century, but I have some reservations about the writing of this play. The Ride Down Mount Morgan  is from late in Arthur Miller’s career, and while it’s certainly engaging and has some great concepts, it’s not at the same level as masterpieces like Death of a Salesman and The Crucible. One of the first rules of playwriting is that everything must serve the plot, and there are a few unresolved “loose ends” here, as well as characters who could have been better fleshed-out, and one character (Bessie) who is very underwritten and often seems extraneous.  Also, the message isn’t entirely clear. Sometimes it seems like Miller is trying to call out Lyman for his incredible self-centered sexism and other faults, but at other times he seems to want to celebrate them.

Despite this play’s problems, though, it’s still Arthur Miller, and his gifts for drama and dialogue are readily apparent, along with some sharp comedy and the clever fantasy sequences and excellent use of flashbacks to further the story, such as vignettes in Lyman’s relationships with Leah (mostly in the first act) and Theo (mostly in the second).  There are good points made also about how older generations got married to prove their maturity, while younger generations delay marriage for the same reasons, and how marriage (and even the best ones), in a very real way, often means giving up one’s independence for the sake of interdependence with another person.  Even though it does seem to be trying to get us to sympathize with Lyman’s perspective, the play also does a good job of conveying the devastation caused by the revelation of Lyman’s bigamy among his wives, his daughter, and even his lawyer, Tom (Eric Dean White) who  is sympathetic to Theo.

The biggest strength of this production is its excellent cast. Pierson deserves a lot of credit for making Lyman about as sympathetic as he can be. The guy is essentially a selfish sleazeball (and racist as well), but as played by Pierson, he can be a charming selfish sleazeball. His wide-eyed, childlike wonder is endearing enough at times that it’s easier to believe that these two very different women would fall for him, and Pierson does a great job of “adjusting” his personality according to which wife he is dealing with at each given moment–free-spirited and adventurous with Leah, and more guarded and cautious with Theo.  Layton and Loui are also excellent as the wives, with Layton portraying the rage and sadness  of betrayal as well as the bewildered joy of new love in one of the flashbacks, and Loui giving a multi-layered performance as the more sheltered and nervous Theo, who really doesn’t know what to make of Lyman a lot of the time even though she clearly loves him.  Steward is to be commended for making the most of the underwritten role of Bessie, and White provides a grounding performance as the loyal family lawyer who tries to be something of a voice of reason.  Fannie Lebby is especially impressive as the no-nonsense hospital nurse who takes care of Lyman and forms a kind of bond with him.  She sounds more Southern than Canadian (as the character is supposed to be), but that really doesn’t matter since her performance and her chemistry with Pierson are delightful.

The staging and technical elements are also extremely well-done.  My only minor quibble is with Loui’s obvious wig, which looked like it was about to fall off in one scene.  Otherwise, the costumes (by Teresa Doggett) and were well-suited and provided a lot of the atmosphere of this production.  The set (designed by Cristie Johnston) was minimalist but striking, with the one hospital bed surrounded by black-painted blocks providing the backdrop for all the various flashbacks, aided by the excellent lighting effects (designed by Bess Moynihan) to suggest various locations. This play’s fantastical elements are very well-served by the inventive set.

I don’t want to spoil too much of the plot, but I will say that I’m not entirely sure Lyman has learned much from his experiences by the end, or if Arthur Miller wanted him to learn anything. Still, this is a very strong production of a witty and complex play that I was glad to have the opportunity to see. It’s sure to be a conversation starter, and with its top-notch cast, it’s well worth seeing.

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