THE AMERICAN CLOCK, by Arthur Miller; directed by Daniel Sullivan; scenery by Karl Eigsti; lighting by Neil Peter Jampolis; costumes by Robert Wojewodski; incidental music by Robert Dennis; produced by Jack Garfein, Warner Theatre Productions and Herbert Wasserman.
With Joan Copeland, John Randolph, William Atherton, Francine Beers, Marilyn Caskey, Robert Harper and Tresa Hughes.
At the Mechanic Theatre, Baltimore, through Nov. 1.
At 64 -- 65, effective tomorrow -- Arthur Miller seems to have suffered a lapse of memory. After a good long Rip van Milleresque sleep and a steaming hot shower, he has forgotten his status as Living National Monument, Licensed Voice From the Past and Playwright Laureate of the Collective American Conscience. He has looked afresh at history, the theater and the complicated business of how to speak to an audience, and emerged as one of the promising young playwrights of the 1980s.
"The American Clock," which opened in Baltimore Tuesday night, began as a dramatic adaptation of Studs Terkel's "Hard Times," an oral history of the Depression. But Terkel's people have largely (and perhaps inevitably) been abandoned in favor of Miller's people and, chiefly, his own family's passage from the prosperous '20s to the debilitating '30s.
His play has 51 characters, countless scenes and, at first, a fragmentary look to it. But all its elements are eventually brought into a single solar system with Miller himself at the center, a young would-be writer gazing at the humanity in orbit around him: his mother, father, friends, relations, friends-of-relations, relations-of-friends, schoolmates, panhandlers and all the distant bodies beyond.
This is a warmer, subtler, funnier and more lyrical Arthur Miller than the one who receded from view a decade ago. But he is still, 36 years after his first play, preoccupied with the same questions -- how we can keep afloat, preserve our dignity and respect one another in a universe that so often resembles chaos. And Miller is still scouring his own Brooklyn upbringing and Jewish-American heritage for answers.
"The American Clock" looks at the '30s as a time when Americans were rudely thrown together and challenged to find clarity in confusion. Miller's own generation experienced the Depression, adolescence and the first demands of adulthood all at once, and may, the play acknowledges, have reached for clarity in illusory places -- for example, in the attractive notion that the American people and socialism were ready for each other. But whatever their mistakes, Miller feels that the reaching itself was good, and that the '30s are worth looking back on because the choices of the '80s are made of the same stuff.
After Tuesday night's gala opening, Miller was named an honorary citizen of Baltimore. It was fine excuse for a genuinely felt standing ovation. Still, there is a tribute he might find more heartening and, right now, more to the point -- namely, a production worthy of this play.
It is hard to take the measure of a show that has just emerged from rehearsals, particularly a show as elaborate as this. "The American Clock" will undoubtedly be a more robust and energetic play a few weeks hence (and it is probably a safe bet that the actors will learn their lines). But amid the recognizable symptoms of pre-Broadway lethargy, there are also hints of a less transitory stodginess. Director Daniel Sullivan seems to see the play as a series of tableaux and declamations, all to be painstakingly laid out and performed with elaborate blandness.
The problem is most vividly presented by Joan Copeland's performance as Rose Baum, the mother. After the Crash, Mrs. Baum is making the best of things, serving hot borscht to a hungry, unemployed Iowa farmer who leans in through the living room window to ask for work. But soon she is lashing out in anger at the unknown thief who has taken her son's brand-new Columbia Racer bike.
Rose is a richly drawn character -- a woman who seems, initially, strong and understanding enough to survive economic ruin and even to inspire others to survive it. But eventually she loses her grip under successive assaults to her sense of social order -- the collapse of her husband's business; the gradual surrender of her valuables, including, at last, the prized grand piano; and the motley procession of strangers and low-lifes with whom the Baums are forced to coexist.
Her transformation should be harrowing, but Copeland (despite the advantage of being the author's sister) does not make it so. She has captured something of the Before and the After, but the metamorphosis in between is missing.
John Randolph is more substantial and believable as the weary but persistent father. And although there is room for more youthful vigor in William Atherton's performance as the son, he sets an appropriately energetic and whimsical rhythm as the play's reminiscing narrator -- a rhythm that the production as a whole, alas, has yet to pick up on.
But all this can -- will -- must -- be corrected. And even as it stands, "The American Clock" is a stimulating play, full of memorable scenes and rhapsodic dialogue. It is also a good, sharp slap in the face, just when we needed it, to all of us who thought we had Arthur Miller's number.