Review: 'The Ride Down Mount Morgan' at St. Louis Actor's Studio Glides to an Icy Smooth Finish
Were humans meant to be monogamous? That’s the question posed by legendary playwright Arthur Miller in “The Ride Down Mount Morgan,” an intriguing story about a wealthy insurance man with one family in Manhattan, and a younger, fresher family in upstate NY. It would be easy to cast such a man aside. He is, after all, a bigamist, and what defense is there for that level of betrayal? But instead of dismissing the man, playwright Miller gives Lyman Felt and the subject earnest consideration. Coupled with rich performances by the cast—particularly John Pierson as Lyman—the play becomes a compelling and spellbinding evening of theater.
The story opens on Lyman in the hospital, bruised and battered following a car wreck suffered while driving down Mount Morgan in a violent snowstorm. Almost immediately we know that all is not right when the nurse (Fannie Lebby) informs him his wife is waiting, and as the reality sinks in, so does panic. His carefully constructed worlds are about to collide. Which wife, he might ask.
Miller has no interest in delaying the meeting of the wives—which sounds like a good set-up for a farce. Instead, he puts everyone in the same room and gets right to the business of exploring Lyman’s life as a bigamist, from the first tickle of an idea in his head to its torched, smoldering conclusion. There are many reasons, we learn, for Lyman’s hubris, but none of them are about sex. Not really. The main thrust is his wanting to live life the way that makes him happy, regardless of societal convention. But as Lyman himself will later observe, “If you live life to your real desires, you end up looking like shit.”
Pierson brings Lyman to excruciating life, and in his skill manages to walk his character down the fine line between our begrudging admiration and knee-jerk contempt. He is at first very repentant, but he gradually gains confidence and even has the audacity to suggest that both women had better lives because he was married to two women. It’s an absurd argument, but Pierson has us actually considering it. Many of the people wagging their judgmental fingers at him are themselves guilty of adultery. “What I really violated is the law of hypocrisy,” he whines, but the arrow strikes home.
Amy Loui, as city wife Theodora, plays the role with skill and compassion for her character, which in turn elicits compassion from the audience. She is the good, sturdy, reliable wife; always there with support for her husband, we imagine, or the perfect bon mot at a cocktail party. Taylor Steward as daughter Bessie—faced with what to her is an unimaginable betrayal—is at once devastated and strong in her derision of the father she worshiped. Upstate wife Leah, portrayed by Julie Layton, with whom Lyman has a young son, is young and dynamic, owns her own business and comes off as being as comfortable rappelling down a cliff side as going to a museum. She’s a force to be reckoned with, and Layton pulls off an interesting dichotomy of being both the most emotionally destroyed and the least concerned. She, we have no doubt, will be fine. It’s Theodora we worry about.
Eric Dean White plays Lyman’s friend and attorney, Tom, who helps Lyman navigate the icy roads of his mind and circumstance. It’s a difficult but necessary role. Miller doesn’t give much to work with, but White makes the character interesting as we see his contempt slowly rise to the surface, all the while remaining true to his friend. Like the women and everybody else apparently, Tom can’t help but like Lyman still, disgusted though he may be. Fannie Lebby is perfect as the nurse, who’s like every nurse you ever had; she’s agreeable, worldly, patient, and she gets the laughs without trying.
Bobby Miller directs with a sure hand, but even better, an invisible hand. We know someone directed because the performances are too good, the production too smooth for there to have not been a director, and we know it’s Miller because the program tells us so. But he has left no fancy calling cards on the stage to draw attention to his work. Instead he has crawled into the play’s guts and worked from the inside out. The same invisibility is true for the set (Cristie Johnston), costumes (Theresa Doggett), and lights (Bess Moynihan). The set was there because it was there. The people wore those costumes because that’s what they wore. The lights… there were lights? Everything about this production worked harmoniously together without drawing attention.
At its core, the play is about morality, but not about a biblical morality—one that’s made up by humans to control other human’s lustfulness and behaviors. It’s a morality that exists as a fundamental human thing—the morality of trust. Playwright Miller makes no secret of how he feels, but he gives both sides a fair shake. At one point during a flashback of the city family on an African safari, Lyman stands down a charging lion. Surprised that the lion has called off his attack, he says, “Maybe lions don’t eat happy people.” Or maybe they do.
“The Ride Down Mount Morgan” by Arthur Miller continues at the St. Louis Actor’s Studio, Gaslight Theatre through Feb. 2. For tickets and information, visit the SLAS website or call 1-(800) 982-2787.