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THEATER

Stages of Development

Allan Miller brings his 50 years of experience to the L.A. premiere of 'A Perfect Ganesh.'

June 21, 1998|Daryl H. Miller | Daryl H. Miller is a Los Angeles-based theater writer

A war had just ended, and the world was struggling to make itself whole again. Millions of lives were changing--forever.

Allan Miller's certainly was.

A 17-year-old Army private first class from Brooklyn, he was among the forces occupying Japan after World War II. Driving supply trucks from a base outside Tokyo, he found himself becoming increasingly homesick and heartsick: Other soldiers ostracized him because he refused to sleep with the local women, who, out of desperation, were being prostituted. The area farmers bowed to him as though he were some sort of conqueror. And the forced obedience of military life was chafing at him.

Then he noticed an ad in Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper, announcing an audition for actors. The Army's Special Services needed performers for the shows it toured to the troops.

Miller had never given a moment's thought to acting, but, somehow, this seemed right. And it was. The other actors felt free to express their fear, their anger, their exuberance--and he found himself enveloped by "a camaraderie of feeling-ness" that he had never before experienced.

Subsequent years found him performing on Broadway and television, teaching acting to a young Barbra Streisand, running a much-admired theater in the San Fernando Valley and becoming one of Los Angeles' most trusted directors.

His current directing project, the Los Angeles premiere of Terrence McNally's "A Perfect Ganesh," opens July 11 at the Odyssey Theatre.

McNally's 1993 play charts a journey toward understanding and renewal, much like the one Miller has been describing on a tranquil spring evening at his Sherman Oaks home. He sits with his back tucked into a corner of an overstuffed couch, his stocking feet stretched out in front of him. At 69, his face is etched with character, his dark hair graying on the sides. He speaks in a quiet, confident, often impassioned voice.

McNally's play bores in on "the secrets we keep from each other," the director says, demonstrating: "Until you can give to others, you cannot be free of your demons. Until you can share your love, your consideration, your admiration, your jealousy, your hate--until you can give all of those things to someone else, without being defensive, without being an enemy--you cannot be clear of the demons. They will always push you around."

The play journeys through India in the company of two middle-aged female friends from the country-club set of Greenwich, Conn. Each has been sensitized by deep loss, the extent of which remains locked inside. Yet cultural and class prejudices lurk even in hearts as acutely tuned as these, as the trip through India reveals.

With a frankly theatrical flourish, McNally--who wrote "Master Class," "Love! Valour! Compassion!" and who won a Tony Award two weeks ago for his "Ragtime" adaptation--uses the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesha to narrate his story. Ganesha, who is considered to be the remover of obstacles, secretly guides the lady travelers, mingling with them in the forms of many of the people they meet along the way.

"These women are, sometimes, as funny as Abbott and Costello," Miller says. "Other times, they are just so pathetic in their obtuseness and their habitualness."

Lois Nettleton, who played Carroll O'Connor's girlfriend on the NBC drama "In the Heat of the Night" and Desiree in the Ahmanson-at-the-Doolittle's "A Little Night Music," portrays the more boisterous of the friends, opposite Louise Sorel, a star of the NBC daytime soap "Days of Our Lives."

Nettleton says that Miller "seems to open up his arms and say, 'I'm here, give me what you have to give.' So you feel very free to just go with it. There's nothing judgmental or restrictive; it's just go 100%."

In 1948, soon after Miller returned from the war, he began attending the New School of Social Research's Dramatic Workshop in New York, run by Erwin Piscator. He then studied acting with Uta Hagen, where classmates included Geraldine Page and Charles Nelson Reilly; and with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio, where such people as James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Paul Newman dropped in from time to time.

In the mid-'50s, Strasberg recommended Miller for a teaching position at the Dramatic Workshop, where Miller had begun his studies. He has been teaching ever since.

In the late '50s, Miller's then-wife, Anita Cooper, was acting in an off-Broadway show, where she met the teenage Barbra Streisand, who was apprenticing backstage. Sensing that the aspiring actress needed some guidance, Cooper invited her home for dinner.

"She was the most ungainly, awkward person I've ever seen try to act," Miller says. "What came out of her mouth had nothing to do with what was happening with her body, or with her feelings." Counterbalancing it, however, was a hunger to learn--"this utter, open, naked desire to know--everything, anything, about acting, about life. It was very, very stirring."

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