The publicity image of a smiling Cheryl Campbell is audaciously inappropriate for Colchester's revival of Arthur Miller's 1992 play set in the depressives' ward of a state institution. It is, however, the kind of Trojan-horse tactic sadly necessary on occasion to entice conservative theatregoers into regional houses. The Mercury's production also softens the tone of the play somewhat, but ultimately does not tip Miller's vision of salvation – or at any rate survival – through individual strength of spirit and support over into sentimentality.
Michael Grandage, an actor making his directorial debut, walks a sometimes shaky but in the end successful line between mainstream audience accessibility and the muted though determined register of the script. As John Frick, a prosperous New England businessman visiting his wife in the hospital, Peter Laird explicitly plays most of his banalities for laughs, and gets them. Heather Canning as Karen Frick gives a more subtle performance, in some respects the most impressive of the evening; at first written off by the audience as a figure of fun, unable to keep a conversation on track for more than a couple of sentences without butterflying off at a tangent, she slowly acquires a powerful pathos until her final tap-dancing scene is grotesquely affecting.
Where Peter Davison in the original British production played Leroy Hamilton (descendant of American founding father Alexander and the "last Yankee" of the title) as an open character whose dogged optimism informed his words and actions throughout, George Irving is much more reticent. He still professes to look on the bright side, but especially in his opening conversation with Frick he is imbued with a terse defensiveness; this Leroy is not unlike David Mamet's favourite screen actor, the inscrutable Joe Mantegna, often making crucial points with his eyes glancing off to eight o'clock of his interlocutor's face. Consequently, the play in this version becomes more about Patricia Hamilton as an individual than the Hamiltons as a couple. Cheryl Campbell's Patricia is the main locus of hope, resolutely weaning herself off medication because "the soul belongs to God, we're not supposed to be stuffing Prozac into his mouth," taking the time and effort to befriend Karen Frick and finally achieving a puzzled but committed resolution with her husband. Miller (who for diversion busies himself with carpentry, Leroy's trade) has denied that the play owes anything to himself and his second wife Marilyn Monroe, but Campbell brings out a faint whiff of Monroe-like vulnerability masked by smiling animation.
Grandage's production is concerned with the four characters as individuals rather than examples. If, in choosing such a focus, he diminishes its power slightly, this does not mean that he fails to convey its force as a snapshot of ordinary people, in the Lawrentian phrase, "coming through".
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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