Story: Lyman Felt is recovering in the hospital after being involved in a serious car accident, careening down a mountain road in wintry conditions in upstate New York. In and out of delirium, he imagines that his wife Theo and grown daughter Bessie have arrived from New York City to visit him. He also hallucinates that Leah, his other wife, has come to the hospital to see him, too.
Except that, in this case, Lyman’s hallucinations are real. Theo and Bessie indeed are on hand, as is the family attorney, Tom. While biding her time in the waiting room, Theo is approached by a young woman who soon claims to be Lyman’s wife. At first Theo ignores the stranger, but when Leah persists that she is Mrs. Felt, the shocking truth is revealed: Lyman is a bigamist.
A cavalcade of tumultuous emotions subsequently ensues. Lyman exacerbates the women’s shock by insisting that he’s done nothing wrong, simply followed his instincts for self-satisfaction, saying that all the while he has taken care of both women and both families materially and emotionally. He is convinced that he is living life the way it should be lived, and is perplexed that his opinion isn’t shared by the others. Will Theo, Leah, Bessie and Tom see the light?
Highlights: First produced in 1991, The Ride Down Mount Morgan demonstrates that playwright Arthur Miller, then 76 years old, still possessed the considerable artistic ability that revealed itself nearly half-a-century earlier with such monumental works as Death of a Salesman and The Crucible.
The difference is that this later piece is frequently riddled with borderline, ludicrous dialogue that descends into melodrama. Still, it is a substantially remarkable work that is given a luminous interpretation by director Bobby Miller in a new St. Louis Actors’ Studio production anchored by John Pierson’s absorbing performance in the lead role.
Other Info: The Ride Down Mount Morgan is a perfect selection for the theme of Actors’ Studio’s seventh season, “Sins of the Father.” The current presentation is filled with powerful performances that carry it beyond the more wince-inducing, melodramatic moments to focus on Miller’s arresting thoughts about monogamy and familial responsibility (a note about Miller’s shabby treatment of his son in the program bio is startling stuff in its own right).
Pierson, who last year took on the challenge of trying to make bestiality palatable as the lead character in Edward Albee’s The Goat or Who Is Sylvia?, moves up the evolutionary ladder a notch here to put a happy face on bigamy. As Lyman, he fails miserably in that effort, but not for lack of talent. Indeed, watching Pierson bob and weave mentally as the morally challenged Lyman is as fascinating as seeing a runaway train gather dangerous velocity as it bolts down that perilous mountain road.
It’s a convincing and stunning performance at full throttle, one director Miller cultivates in a production that maintains its shock value as consistently as its smooth, steady pace. Miller enhances the proceedings with a wonderful sound track that utilizes judiciously selected tunes that add their own irony.
There’s expert work by Amy Loui and Julie Layton as the two Mrs. Felts. Loui, in particular, shapes a sobering and heart-tugging performance as Theo, who has spent more than three decades with a man whose betrayal is trumped by his own cavalier attitude. That attitude is underscored by Lyman’s boastful pronouncements of how he has single-handedly helped numerous black people in his business, an all-about-me pat on his own back.
Loui invests Theo with substantial emotional artillery, which she reveals in her character’s measured dialogue as well as gesticulations and expressions. It’s a richly nuanced performance of an impossibly wronged woman.
Layton brings depth and dimension to the younger, hipper but equally hurt Leah, who has a son with Lyman. Layton is adept at moving confidently between comedy and drama, an ability that makes the most of the broad range of emotions in Miller’s script.
Fannie Lebby displays her own splendid touch with comic delivery as well as some sage advice as Lyman’s wise nurse. As Tom, Eric Dean White expresses disappointment in subtle, self-controlled ways that accentuate his professional demeanor while also showing the disapproval of a friend. Taylor Steward completes the cast in a nice turn as Lyman’s deeply offended daughter.
Teresa Doggett’s costuming smartly dresses Lyman’s wives in expensive attire, albeit versatile enough for quick changes for flashback scenes. The scenic design by Christie Johnston is dominated by a large hospital bed at stage right and cleverly uses a panel at mid-stage behind which the performers can make those changes or exit the stage, with a backdrop softly illuminated by lighting designer Bess Moynihan. Props provided by Carla Evans complement the set design.
Director Miller and his savvy cast offer a fascinating look at one of Arthur Miller’s lesser known works, but one that still packs enough intellectual and emotional punch to make The Ride Down Mount Morgan worth the trip.
Play: The Ride Down Mount Morgan
Company: St. Louis Actors’ Studio
Venue: Gaslight Theater, 358 North Boyle
Dates: January 23, 24, 25, 26, 30, 31, February 1, 2
Tickets: $25-$30; contact 458-2978, 1-800-982-2787 or ticketmaster.com
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb