Thursday, June 11, 2009

Review: "The American Clock" @ The Western Stage

Given today's national economic crisis, there is an eerie prescience that resonates from Arthur Miller's "The American Clock," a vaudeville set in the wake of the 1929 U.S. Stock Market crash.
Opening the 2009-2010 season for The Western Stage, Miller's play is as much about American denial and doom as it is an examination of the times.
Juxtaposed with the nation's current economic plight, it's an earnest reflection staged and executed handily by the Salinas-based theater company.
Beginning with the large cast of more than 20 players, "The American Clock" is not the commonly known style of vaudeville punctuated by slapstick comedy and musical numbers.
Instead, as described in the production notes, it's meant as a series of short pieces, some dramatic, some musical, providing glimpses of the different people affected by the crash and the onset of the Great Depression.
That series begins with Arthur A. Robertson (a terrific Jeffrey Heyer), the lanky, wealthy New York City investor who sees the oncoming crisis and tries to warn those he cares for: a humble shoe shiner, then his personal therapist.
As he sits in his session, a woeful sense of guilt overwhelms him, as he reveals his plan to pull out all of his money, despite his therapists insistence that the market is on the rise.
"The stock market merely represents a state of mind," Robertson says presciently, revealing a lesson most of the American public is aware of. He then leaves somberly with some final advice, invest in gold bars and store it in your basement.
From there, Miller unveils the Baums, a Jewish family from Brooklyn. Young Lee Baum (Jacob Estrada in an understated debut performance) serves as the play's other protagonist, on a soul-searching mission that takes him from New York to the deep south and eventually toward socialism and a journalism career.
Doted on by his caring-turned-paranoid mother Rose (Anna Shumacher, bold and heartbreaking) and noble but spineless father Moe (Fred Herro in an eloquent turn), Lee Baum is the false hope that everyone in the play harbors blindly.
Baum eventually turns cold as the failed hope of the Depression era he comes of age in.
Using those characters to provide a loose narrative thread, Miller's script captures stolen moments from throughout the turbulent period, from Iowa farmhand revolts to beggars roaming the streets of Brooklyn.
Director Jon Patrick Selover does a tremendous job blocking out the action in the cramped confines of the Hartnell College Studio Theater.
Letting his cast spill out along the edges of the space, the numerous transitions flow smoothly, allowing the audience to stay in rhythm during the long stretch (the play clocks in at a robust 2 hours and 45 minutes).
Selover's production crew also comes through on most ends. Although the sketched New York skyline serves as a lazy backdrop, Tomas Reyes' sound design and John Englehorn's lighting design more than make up for the spare set.
Also, Melissa Chin-Parker, Maria Elena Cordero and Diane Kelsey's costume design is a detailed inspiration, with lots of double-knits and dreary color tones to reflect the drab era.
The director gives his large cast enough to do without wasting anyone's time. Highlights include Terry Durney, who steals the show as the shortest-tenured corporate president of all-time, Joe Yedlicka as the Baums' Jewish grandpa heading toward senility, and Tom Kiatta as the Iowa farmer who loses everything and stumbles into the Baums' Brooklyn enclave begging for work.
The production's only setback is the unclear connections between some of the side characters, which extends the play about a half-hour too long.
No doubt Heyer would have a tough time trying to trim a Miller script, but the production loses some steam leading up to the final scene involving the Baums and a persistent bill collector.
But leave it to a master like Miller to provide a forward-looking portrait of American fear in such a drawn-out manner.
Walking out of "The American Clock," today's audience has a clear sense of the playwright's message: Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.

No comments: