Wed 27th May to Sat 30th May
2015 marks the centenary of Arthur Miller's birth. Having spent much of his career writing about the human cost of chasing The American Dream, he was in his seventies when "The Last Yankee" first appeared on stage in 1991. The trademark moral fervour still burns as fiercely as ever, but this is a quieter, more poignant chamber piece, compared with the full-length plays that established his reputation.
Set in a New England state mental hospital, just as Prozac emerged as the US pharmaceutical industry's cure for depression, the play has just two scenes. In the first, two men meet in the hospital waiting room. Both are there to visit their wives, who are being treated inside. One is a successful businessman; the other is a carpenter (Miller famously relaxed by creating wooden furniture) and amateur banjo player. It is a stilted, awkward meeting, shot through with mistrust, prejudice, and embarrassment about why they are both there.
Then we go inside the hospital to meet their wives as they trade stories of their treatment, and the feelings that led them to seek it. When the husbands join them, all four reveal the cost of living up to the ambitions of others.
THE LAST YANKEE by Arthur Miller
One has five children but not the material benefits that she feels entitled to. The other has no children but what Harry Enfield used to call "loadsamoney". Both are profoundly depressed. So much so that Patricia Hamilton and Karen Frick are sitting side by side in a New England psychiatric hospital. Welcome to Miller-land, otherwise known as the American Nightmare.
Like so many literary giants from "across the pond", Arthur Miller has revelled in exploring the American Dream and where it all went wrong. Here, in a play penned in his 78th year, he appears to be exploring the cost of trying to live up to the dreams, or rather the expectations, of those closest to you.
Karen's husband is easily identifiable as the cause of her problems. John Frick is a successful businessman, proud of his "conservative" views. Within a few minutes of meeting Patricia's husband in the waiting room, he's confiding at full volume that "there's an awful lotta coloureds in this place".
Leroy Hamilton is an altogether more complex character. He's a carpenter by trade. No ordinary carpenter, mind you. This is a craftsman capable of complex work. What he finds difficult is asking the right price for it, much to his wife's frustration. He's well dressed, however, flicking through Time Magazine when we first catch sight of him. Turns out to be directly descended from Alexander Hamilton, one of the founding fathers of America, if you please.
Leroy is the last Yankee. He loves New England. His Swedish wife does not. She's more concerned about the rust on the family's ageing Chevrolet than the colour of autumnal leaves in "the Fall".
Patty, as he calls her, is played with suitably twitchy edginess by Ruth Herd. Chris Firth cleverly captures the complexity of Leroy, easy-going and understated one minute, deeply frustrated the next. John Fenner also gets right into the soul of Frick as he struggles to restrain his voluble bombast, his frustration and sheer impatience with his wife's condition.
As for Anne Houston, she's simply superb as Karen Frick. The scene at the end where she tries to tap dance like Ginger Rogers is almost unbearably poignant. Her costume glitters with all the false promise of an escapist movie from 1930s Hollywood as her eyes gleam with tears.
This is a short, studio-style production with little plot but plenty of symbolism and substance. The only person left on stage at the end is a sedated patient who has managed to sleep through all the shouting. She's not having a nightmare, one assumes, as the light slowly fades on the dark, stark set and, by implication, the American Dream.