KPBS AIRDATE: November 9, 1994
In “The Last Yankee,” Arthur Miller drops all sorts of bombs all over the stage; then he runs away. Big Issues explode, but no one stays around to pick up the pieces or attempt to put them together. As he nears 80, maybe the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright is trying to cram everything into every new work. This 70-minute, 1993 play is all over the place. But in its San Diego premiere, it’s nestled into a pleasant outdoor setting, the Garden Cabaret in Mission Hills.
For San Diego Actors Theatre, it’s a multi-level event. The local premiere of an Arthur Miller play. A unique, new performing space. And the onset of their tenth anniversary season, after a two-year mainstage production hiatus. This offering is cause for company celebration.
Director Wayne Tibbetts and his cast manage to navigate this mini-minefield of a play with aplomb. The piece takes place in a public New England psychiatric institution. The spotlight is on two female patients and their husbands. Both women are suffering from depression. No one really knows why, in either case, but there is a huge amount of speculation, including the suggestion that “anybody with any sense is depressed in this country.”
More to the point of the play, though, what do these women have in common that brought them to the same place with the same symptomatology? Karen has no children; Patricia has seven. Patricia has money problems; Karen has none. Patricia’s husband, who hopes he’s “The last Yankee” of the title, is descended from Alexander Hamilton, but he’s a carpenter who isn’t overly ambitious. Karen’s husband is a self-made businessman, a workaholic. This is Patricia’s third time as an inpatient in fifteen years; she’s ready to go home. It’s Karen’s first incarceration; she’s more frightened, and much more heavily medicated. Both women struggle to understand, not to blame, to find a little moment of happiness, to fit into their skins and their marriages.
As the interactions between the couples take center stage, we see that this play is less about depression than disappointment. About failure to meet expectations. And about the games played out and replayed in a relationship. Men not understanding. Women backing them into a corner from which they cannot escape successfully.
The performances are generally understated, well tempered. The space is used to good effect; the audience is very close to the action. Tibbetts isn’t afraid of quiet, awkward moments. But why he had two white-clad hospital attendants crossing the stage from time to time, doing nothing, is totally unclear. The catatonic patient in bed was a kind of frightening addition, though. I was close enough to try on her slippers.
Meanwhile, center-stage, the four actors do a masterful job. Ann Richardson is magnificent, in a finely nuanced performance as Karen, a terrified older woman, spewing non sequiturs and laughing maniacally, putting on spangled shorts, a top-hat and tap shoes and achingly trying to sing and dance. Doug Waldo gives a simple, unadorned performance and is, as always, quite believable. Robert Larsen is much more controlled than usual, though his character is obviously seething underneath. The role of Patricia, played by Patricia Elmore Costa, is the least interpretable. She’s a bundle of contradictions — as written and played — and it’s not easy to buy her buoyancy given a history of depression and Swedish genes. The Boston accents come and go in the men; somewhat enigmatically, there are no accents in the women. The inconsistency is unnerving.
But the production overall is quite engaging. The play may be flawed, but it’s a nice stretch for Elmore Costa’s company. Happy Anniversary, San Diego Actors Theatre. And welcome back!
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1994 Patté Productions Inc.