Arthur Miller made a banquet of agony in “After the Fall,” his 1964 drama about a good man named Quentin who is obsessed with his moral failings. How could Quentin’s two marriages have been such disasters? How do his own human smash-ups relate to McCarthyism, to the Holocaust?
“I don’t know if I have lived in good faith,” broods Quentin, the 40-ish lawyer whose mind darts through episodes in his past, looking for clues. The character’s relentless self-examination is pitiless, and it takes a deft production to make this quest seem mighty, rather than just three hours of pretentious navel-gazing.
Luckily, Theater J has put Miller’s drama in the hands of an insightful stylist. Director Jose Carrasquillo, who made a handsome job of Samuel Beckett’s equally weighty “Happy Days” a few months ago, again teams up with designer Tony Cisek and bright actors to make a mid-20th-century monument look like serious fun to climb.
Like “Death of a Salesman,” “After the Fall” dances back and forth through time as the protagonist looks for big answers. Cisek and lighting designer Dan Covey create the sleek effect of a granite-floored airline terminal, and into this open space comes Carrasquillo’s extremely sharp cast, tasked with playing some of the most debated characters in Miller’s celebrated career. Isn’t Quentin really Miller? Isn’t Maggie, the bedeviled sexpot and pop superstar, really Marilyn Monroe? Isn’t Mickey, the Quentin colleague who names names before a McCarthy interrogating committee, really director Elia Kazan, whose House Un-American Activities Committee cooperation alienated him from his playwright pal Miller?
Miller turned blue in the face denying such direct parallels. Watch the play, though, and just try to get the historical figures out of your mind. (It’s like trying to erase Elie Wiesel from Theater J’s previous offering, “Imagining Madoff,” a change Wiesel compelled after playwright Deb Margolin appropriated him for her drama. Jury, please disregard.) The real-life associations aren’t the distraction Miller feared: If anything, they give the moral reckonings added resonance.
Carrasquillo doesn’t seem especially hung up about evoking or denying biography; what matters is that he has cast actors who gamely plunge into Miller’s psychic depths. Mitchell Hebert, in a huge role, is appealingly wry as Quentin, which makes all the self-scolding go down easy.
“Geez,” Quentin mutters to us as he debates giving in to Maggie’s wiggly seductions, “I can’t even go to bed without a principle.” Hebert makes such revelations personable; he skillfully lures us in, rather than fulminating from on high.
Miller hits his stride with the McCarthyism debates, which become explosive as played by Tim Getman (the self-righteous Mickey) and Stephen Patrick Martin (his colleague Lou, who stands to be destroyed when Mickey testifies). But it’s the orbit of women that most obsesses Quentin. Kimberly Schraf argues and wilts beautifully as Louise, the first wife, while Jennifer Mendenhall displays stoic promise as Holga, the German woman of Quentin’s present.
Maggie, of course, is a Dantean inferno. Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey, breathy-voiced and trembling, is delicate as a kitten; Hebert’s Quentin actually pets her in comfort soon after she first appears. Maggie ultimately blows up into a self-destructive, drug-addled diva, and Fernandez-Coffey somehow manages to purr Maggie inanities such as “You’re like a god,” “I wish I knew something” and “What’s moral?” without sounding insipid. The actress scrambles bravely through the weirdly parent-child dialogue and into the center of the flaky character’s incurable hurt.
It’s a tough play: introspective, epic, turgid. Theater J — not a bashful company — is right to give it a whirl, and Carrasquillo and his team minimize the ambitious but little-revived play’s false notes. They make the drama almost compulsively watchable.
Pressley is a freelance writer.
by Arthur Miller. Directed by Jose Carrasquillo. Costumes, Ivania Stack; sound, Veronika Vorel. With Joe Brack, Dana Levanovsky and Kerry Waters Lucas. About three hours. Through Nov. 27 at the Goldman Theater, 1529 16th St. NW. Call 800-494-8497 or visit theaterj.org.