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'Merrill Wake': A Family With a Tragedy

November 29, 1987|JANICE ARKATOV

The American family gets another go-round under the looking glass in Bruce McIntosh's "After the Merrill Wake," opening Friday at ADT at the Lex in Hollywood.

"It's about the relationships between family members after the death of the youngest son," said Leah Lowe, who's making her professional directorial debut here.

"The father is an alcoholic who leaves the family in the lurch--doesn't go to the funeral or the wake--then comes back to make amends. The mother is the nominal head of the family. The oldest son, Frank, is a sharp lawyer with less-than-impeccable morals; his wife Lisa has 'married up.' Shannon, 25, is the baby of the family; no one wants to let her grow up."

When Lowe (an MFA candidate at the University of Minnesota and first-up in ADT artistic director Dorothy Lyman's Emerging Directors Series) arrived in town a month ago, the play was essentially cast: "My feelings about that are mixed. We got a great cast, so it's all worked out. But as a general rule, it may not be the best idea. But I chose the costume design--and really, since I've been here, I've had a free rein. Every once in awhile, some production person or Dorothy looks in. But they've been very friendly and supportive."

Although she also, in effect, had the play picked for her, Lowe is pleased with the choice.

"It fascinates me that there's so much focus on the American family in drama," she noted, "that we're apparently so concerned with straightening out family values. The British aren't interested in that--their plays are more farce-y, political, concerned with style. I think it's that the American dream is predicated on the successful family--which is almost destined not to live up to that myth. There are lots of disappointments in families. This play forces an examination of what's going on when people really need each other."

Back for a welcome encore is "Sand Mountain," two Romulus Linney one-acts, opening Friday at the Back Alley (where it played from December, 1986 through March of this year). John Schuck returns as director, as does--with one exception--the original cast.

"I have a feeling it's going to be like an old friendship; you pick up right where you left off," said Schuck. The two pieces, "Courtin' on Sand Mountain" (about a widow who methodically scares off a procession of suitors) and "When the Lord Come to Sand Mountain" (a gentle tale that finds the Lord accepting lodging--and swapping stories--in an Appalachian cabin) "are about storytelling, the way myths are created to suit our needs. They're deceptively simple, but the love of culture is very clear.

"There's also something quite ecumenical about the plays; they don't offend anyone's religious beliefs. It wasn't even originally conceived as a holiday project. I just happened to notice an obscure asterisk that said, 'A Christmas song could be substituted here.' " Schuck will be juggling those theater duties with his current television gig--reviving genial, purple-hued Herman Munster in "The Munsters Today," an upcoming series for syndication.

"They've been working on the dye," he sighed, "so now I don't look so much like a frozen beet."

CRITICAL CROSSFIRE: Norway's Stein Winge returned to the Los Angeles Theatre Center for a production of "King Lear," with fellow Norwegian Espen Skjonberg in the title role.

Said The Times' Sylvie Drake: "Lear and friends swirl and stretch and howl under a swooping crepe-like tapestry of indeterminate color that, for a moment, looks as if it came right out of Munch's 'Silent Scream.' Effective? Not when 'Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!' emerges like an edict, meticulously inflected for clarity without an ounce of feeling. The whole thing becomes one of those monstrous ideas that must have seemed better on paper."

Polly Warfield, in Drama-Logue, found Winge's adaptation "one of a kind, an oddity, a collector's item. Certainties are few in this uncertain world, but you're unlikely ever to see another like this one. This is a 'Lear' without tears, without depth, without pity though not without terror; a 'Lear' that revels in sensation, spectacle, surprise and shock, devoid of heart and true emotions. Its main fault is a directorial intrusion and manipulation Shakespeare lovers will resent."

From the Daily News' Tom Jacobs: "The director's emphasis is on the visceral, and in theory there's nothing wrong with that; no one wants dry, by-the-book Shakespeare. But rather than accomplishing this by guiding his actors to fully fleshed-out characterizations, he has taken the Sam Peckinpah route. Characters make mad, passionate love on the stage, they crawl around on the floor yelping in pain. And they inflict violence on one another whenever possible."

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