Picture, Scene at opening ceremony of Spoleto Festival; by UPI After a series of previews, Arthur Miller's latest play, "The American Clock," is enjoying a standing-room-only run of performances in the Spoleto Festival here.
Miller's first play in 10 years fits perfectly into the intimate spaces of the lovely old Dock Street Theater. Before it begins, the bare stage is dominated by a screen showing a copy of the New York Herald Tribune dated March 1933, with headlines reading: Roosevelt Bids Nation Lose Fear; Join for Recovery as Banks Open; City Bankers End Holiday Today Two headlines that could appear in today's papers flank the main headliners: Relief Calms Quake Zone; Rebuilding and Economy Bill Faces Fight in Senate Today. So what else is new?
The play is focused entirely on the weeks just before and the years just after, the stock market crash of October 1929. The terrible deterioration in families and individuals is vividly recalled in a series of scenes that are accurate vignettes of those terrible years.
But Miller has problems creating any sense of growing drama -- his scenes remain flat, one-dimensional affairs.
Some of us can remember the stories of ruined men's bodies hurtling from their office windows when their once-large fortunes disappeared. But the repetitive talk of the market, of John D. Rockefeller's huge buying of common stocks, of bread lines and the WPA, the 16 million umemployed, and the inability of educated men and women to get work becomes oppressive without tying the whole thing together.
Some scenes hold real impact: the Iowa farm auctions, and the scenes of disintegrating family life, a corrosive process that runs throughout the play. But in the end it remains a rather disjointed series of bitter recollections that look and sound more than anything else like a pre-TV soap drama.
Only the impressive work of a strong cast -- 15 actors playing 53 roles -- keeps the machinery running. Out of all the notable performances, those of Peter Evans, as the son of the hardhit family, and of Joan Copeland, as his mother, stand out.
Evans plays with a tremendous emotional range, starting as a young adolescent and growing into a man who sees his father defeated by the Depression. Copeland, who is the playwright's sister, has several scenes in which, with lovely style and feeling, she sings and plays some of the songs of the early '30s. It is no wonder that television is recalled during the play when John Randolph, whose face is one of the most familiar on TV screens, has the principal role of the father of the troubled family.
Miller calls his play "a mural for the theater." It was inspired by Studs Terkel's "Hard Times." It is indeed a mural, but one whose message most of the time seems caught in its frame on the wall.