The fall semester directing project for the crop of second-year MFA drama students at the University of Montana is officially titled the “Director’s Festival of One-Act Plays,” but it may well have been called “A Tennessee Williams Sandwich on Arthur Miller Bread.” The event features three relatively obscure one-act plays from the legendary playwrights, a short play by Williams bookended by two longer Miller pieces. And though sandwiches with a thin filling wedged between thick chunks of bread normally leave much to be desired, this festival comes off as a gourmet feast of American theater, due in large part to the sheer substance of the Miller works, both of which were written within the last fifteen years.
That’s not to say that the Williams play is insubstantial. Auto Da Fé, directed by Cristian Popescu, is as intense a 25-minute chunk of drama as can be found. Written in 1938 and set in New Orleans, Williams’ home at the time, the play’s title translates as “Act of Faith” and takes its name from the specific days during the Spanish Inquisition when accused heretics were examined. Those who were not acquitted were burned alive, an execution method in keeping with the Roman Catholic practice of isolating the Church from the taint of bloodshed.
Auto Da Fé revolves around the barely controlled puritanical rage of Mme. Duvenet and the uncontrolled angst of repressed lust from her adult son, Eloi, an extremely disgruntled postal worker. Eloi and his mother lob venomous shells back and forth, never quite aiming at each other but never straying far from the vicinity either. Kate Roxburgh and Robert McDonough, as mother and son, walk the emotional high wire created by Williams with considerable aplomb, and they’re helped along by dialogue gems like Eloi’s description of the neighborhood (“there’s every kind of fetid degeneracy … it’s a primary lesion, a focal infection!”), and the response to his mother’s advocacy of religious guidance (“the priest is a cripple in skirts!”). Popescu’s Spartan stage set nicely underscores his characters’ hypocritical rage and provides a perfect backdrop for the cleansing fire of retribution that Eloi and his mother bring down upon themselves.
Both of the Miller plays are remarkable in that they provide detailed forays into the mind of perhaps this country’s greatest playwright, who freely acknowledges the autobiographical nature of his work. Clara was written in 1987, when Miller was just entering his seventies, and centers around the remarkable interplay between two men on the verge of physical breakdown and retirement. Albert Kroll has just discovered the body of his murdered daughter in her apartment, and police Lieutenant Lew Fine is on the scene to lead Kroll through his shock and grief in an effort to discern clues of her possible killer.
The ghost of Kroll’s daughter, Clara, circles the stage throughout the performance, occasionally entering the action to engage her father as he struggles with the enormous guilt generated by the liberal social values he had instilled in her, which he fears led directly to her death. That Miller is able to plumb the depths of both Kroll and Fine to the extent he does—especially given the play’s 50-minute run time—is a pure testament to his genius.
Director Matt Greseth shows a deft touch in handling the complex discourse between the two men, and his adaptation of the original script to the dynamics of the theater-in-the-round of the Masquer Theater is spot-on. “The rhythm and pacing of the play has really come together over the past week,” Greseth says. “We’ve spent a lot of time on the progression of Kroll’s character, the arc he takes from beginning to end. In particular, Matt [Moisan, who plays Lt. Fine] has been a workhorse. From where he started to where he is now is night and day.”
Greseth says Clara is a work that he came upon early in his project search and nearly overlooked. “The hardest thing was finding the play. I read it and kind of discarded it, then came back to it after reading a whole bunch of shit. I read it a few more times and fell in love with it,” he says.
Rounding out the trio is Mr. Peters’ Connections, the longest of the plays at a little over an hour. Directed by Missoula theater scene veteran Chris Evans, Mr. Peters’ Connections tracks the mental and emotional odyssey of the titular character as he looks back on his life from an advanced age—which is no surprise, given that Miller wrote the play a mere three years ago.
Mr. Peters’ Connections, like Clara, is populated by ghosts, but this time it’s not clear who walks among the living and who among the dead. The play takes place in an abandoned nightclub that Peters is ostensibly thinking of buying, but as the action progresses it becomes apparent that the nightclub is some sort of way station between life and death, a kind of purgatory in Peters’ mind as he searches for meaning.
The characters are multiple and diverse, ranging from Peters’ wife to a homeless drunk perched on the wall to young vixen named Kathy Mae, whom Evans believes is a representation of Miller’s one-time wife, Marilyn Monroe. “The connections there were pretty clear, so I decided to go with it,” says Evans. He further posits that the shoe salesman in the play, who at one point physically accosts Kathy Mae, is a thinly veiled Joe DiMaggio (DiMaggio and Monroe were rumored to have a tumultuous relationship, and Miller and DiMaggio were famously at odds throughout their post-Monroe existence).
Evans, who has directed several plays for Missoula Children’s Theatre, has found new inspiration through the MFA program. “It’s really become clear to me how essential the story is to theater. If you remain true to the story, things fall into place,” he says. “It’s not just about painting pretty pictures on stage, it’s about portraying moments that are clear and honest.”
The Director’s Festival of One-Act Plays runs Tuesday through Saturday until Nov. 17. Shows begin at 7:30 p.m. at the Masquer Theater. The Friday, Nov. 10 show will feature an audience-participation talk-back with the actors and directors following the performance.