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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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