The three one-act plays that make up Arthur Miller's "Danger: Memory!" are quiet dazzlers in director Shira Piven's confident, reflective production at Theater J.
Piven and her strong graceful cast work in a lyrical mode that never slips into sentimentality. There's a hard edge to the characters--almost all of whom reflect on loss in one way or another--that isn't softened by the lovely autumnal abstraction of Danila Korogodsky's set.
In each of these plays, Miller catches people on the down slope or nearing the end of the full sweep of living, and the vast view from that vantage point is sometimes a little puzzling to the characters, and sometimes enough to bring on a full-fledged breakdown.
Miller's figures talk and shuffle through the fallen leaves on the simple, poetic set, and nothing urgent seems to be at stake for much of the evening. But the repeating currents--many having to do with isolation, disappointment and the changes and pressures of living an American life--add up.
The first play, "The Ryan Interview (Or How It Was Around Here)," basically offers the perspective of long memory as a young female reporter interviews Ryan, a 100-year-old New Englander, about how it once was around there. The government doesn't know Ryan exists--no military service, no taxes, no Social Security--which makes him a kind of radical.
"The Ryan Interview" has more gentle humor than you might expect from the ever-serious Miller, and David Harscheid plays the title character as an agreeable old flake (with Paula Gruskiewicz playing the straight-man reporter). The play is brief and almost wistful but not trite as it obliquely hints at the price that comes with change.
In "I Can't Remember Anything," Leonora, a widow, and Leo, her dead husband's friend, keep each other company at the end of the day. She drinks "colored water" (her euphemism for bourbon) while he putters over dinner. Leonora chatters and complains; since her husband's death, she can't figure out her function in life. Can she soldier on? Should she?
In a splendidly fluid performance, Dorothea Hammond plays Leonora's pessimism with the forced breeziness of a party girl who isn't sure what to do now that the party's over. She's deeply lost. Irv Ziff's Leo is a steadier hand, quick with a dark wisecrack and an alternate perspective that doesn't always console Leonora.
"The Last Yankee" is about Leroy Hamilton, a struggling carpenter, and his wife, Patricia, who is well into her third stint in the state mental institution. Miller stuffs a lot into this long play, and it all gets channeled through Gruskiewicz's skillfully mercurial performance as Patricia, a desperately disappointed woman who has been off medication for 21 days and has the vicious mood swings to prove it.
Like Leo and Leonora, Leroy and Patricia have basic philosophical differences to hash out. A key question is whether Patricia is genuinely ill, or whether she suffers from what Leroy (played with carefully tempered frustration by Tim Carlin) calls an "attitude problem." In part, Patricia is symptomatic of the perils of living in a country that encourages outsize dreams that often don't come true.
You could argue that all plays are about the conduct of life, in one way or another, but Miller's dramas are more direct than most. Although these aren't muscular, crusading plays, they are emotionally supple and intellectually engrossing, even when they ramble (as all three occasionally do).
In her program notes, Piven writes that these are "quietly religious plays," and she stages them that way, with a reverence for the everyday rough edges of the people and a spirit that comes through in the subtle magical images. In "The Last Yankee," for instance, another mentally ill character, Karen (performed by Hammond with a touching, tentative randomness) consolingly rocks the hospital bed suspended above the stage while Gruskiewicz's Patricia worriedly rolls under it. "Danger: Memory!" is full of such casually performed imagery as Piven pulls off the unlikely trick of being always at ease, yet always intense.
Danger: Memory! Three one-act plays by Arthur Miller. Directed by Shira Piven. Lights, Marianne Meadows; costumes, Lea Umberger; sound, Brian Keating. Through Nov. 28 at the D.C. Jewish Community Center. Call 800-494-8497.
CAPTION: Tim Carlin and Paula Gruskiewicz in "The Last Yankee," part of "Danger: Memory!" at Theater J.