The Wild Duck; Death of a Salesman; J.B.

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This is Louis Fantasia with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

After the premiere of DEATH OF A SALESMAN in 1949, Arthur Miller wrote an essay for the New York Times in which he claimed that "the tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his secure...his sense of personal dignity." Opposed to this is an environment, usually economic or political, that seeks to "displace" that identity. This fear of displacement, writes Miller, is at the essence of our contemporary anxiety. Willy Loman's son Biff challenges him with: "The man don't know who we are. The man is gonna know. We never told the truth for ten minutes in this house." In Ibsen's THE WILD DUCK, at A Noise Within in Glendale until May 19, young Gregers Werle, like Biff, comes home, this time after an absence of fifteen years, and, deciding that the lives of everyone he knows are based on lies, takes it upon himself to open their eyes, with catastrophic results. Werle, self-righteous and self-loathing, early on says that he would spit on anyone who had his name because of what his father had done. "Gregers Werle, isn't that a cross to bear", and this cross motivates his misguided idealism. Ibsen leads us on a wild canard (pun intended), as we try and figure out what the duck, the least of Gregers innocent victims, stands for: a wounded bird who, having been nursed back to health, is kept in a bizarre, un-natural, indoor forest. Ultimately, we realize that it stands for all of us, who must have our illusions, bizarre and un-natural though they be, if we are to survive. Ibsen, whose plays were so ground-breaking a hundred years ago, can easily seem melodramatic today. Romanian director Adrian Giurgea's farcical reading of Ibsen encourages frequent, misplaced laughs, so that the company (despite such exceptions as Abby Craden and Lily Nicksay, as the victimized mother and daughter, and William Dennis Hunt as the patriarchal elder Werle) flies unfortunately close to Nordic high camp. THE WILD DUCK continues at A Noise Within until May 19th.

As I took my seat for what turned out to be a first-rate production DEATH OF A SALESMAN at the INTERACT THEATRE in North Hollywood to May 26th, I heard a young man ask his date if she thought SALESMAN was the quintessential American drama. She paused a moment, then said she didn't know. "What's the quintessential?", she asked. The quintessential, my dear, is the purest essence of something, and yes, DEATH OF A SALESMAN, despite its near clich- status, is still the quintessential American drama. The INTERACT PRODUCTION is lucky to have veteran Eddie Jones as Willy. Jones plays him as a whipped bulldog, cornered but never giving up. He's not one of the most towering Salesmen, but certainly one of the most human. The entire production, under Anita Khanzandian's gentle hand, glows with the kind of care, craft and thought rarely seen in L.A.'s small theatres. DEATH OF A SALESMAN, at the INTERACT THEATRE IN NORTH HOLLYWOOD to May 26, remains Miller's greatest work. Nobody dast blame him for falling short of it, or continuing to try.

Unlike Miller, Archibald Macleish is remembered in American drama, if at all, for one play, J.B., which, in 1958, earned him his third Pulitzer Prize (the other two were for poetry). J.B., an allegory in verse based on the Book of Job, is rarely performed, and we should be grateful to director Brian Kite and the talented Buffalo Nights Company for bringing the play to life at the Powerhouse in Santa Monica, to June 2nd. Macleish sets his modern morality play in a circus, where God and the Devil (who sell balloons and peanuts) test poor J.B. with all sorts of plagues. Like Job, J.B. refuses to curse God for his pains. Unlike his Biblical predecessor, however, he refuses to take full blame for them. Modern man's anguish, argues Macleish, is there that is no balm in Gilead, and that politics, psychiatry and religion have all failed us. In the end, Macleish argues unconvincingly for a kind of humanist rationalism based on love. If his conclusion is a let down, it's not the fault of this well-crafted production. In the aftermath of September 11th, J.B., at the Powerhouse until June 2nd, presciently reminds us how limited our options really are. This is Louis Fantasia with Theatre Talk for KCRW.