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Leading separate wives

In a Santa Barbara production, Miller's 'The Ride Down Mt. Morgan' is an effective if flawed portrait of a self-centered bigamist.

October 08, 2003|Philip Brandes | Special to The Times

"A man can be faithful to himself or to other people -- but not to both." So goes the self-serving defense that bigamous antihero Lyman Felt offers for his bottomless, destructive egotism in Arthur Miller's "The Ride Down Mt. Morgan." First performed in 1991, Miller's late-career comedy-drama finally makes its Southland debut in a staging from Santa Barbara's Ensemble Theatre Company that proves generally capable, but rough around its nuanced edges.

No modern playwright frames fundamental moral dilemmas with greater precision and clarity than Miller. While some conceptual limitations keep "Mt. Morgan" from the top tier of the author's classic works, even this emotionally cool Miller Lite is worthwhile viewing as it focuses with uncompromising scrutiny and undimmed eloquence on the knotty relations between men and women. Or, in this case, between a man and two women.

For nearly a decade, 54-year-old self-made insurance tycoon Felt (Rudolph Willrich) has successfully maintained a tony Manhattan home life with his ultra-WASPish first wife, Theo (Kathy Bell Denton), and a looser, more adventurous upstate marriage to the younger, Jewish Leah (Lee Ann Manley). Now, however, a mountain-pass car wreck has left him hospitalized and at the mercy of both wives, who've each been notified of the accident -- and, in his worst nightmare come true, finally met one another.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday October 15, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Character name -- In an Oct. 8 Calendar review of Arthur Miller's "The Ride Down Mt. Morgan," the first name of the "Death of a Salesman" character Willy Loman was incorrectly spelled Willie.

Through a kaleidoscopic haze of dreams, memories and post-outing confrontations, the bedridden Lyman endures the natural rage and anguish of both women, as well as that of Bessie (Caitlin Ferrara), the grown daughter he raised with Theo (a younger son he had with Leah remains an offstage bundle of additional guilt). Under Robert Grande-Weiss' direction, all three actresses bring palpable pain (and commendable depth) to their cleanly differentiated characters, establishing the heavy consequences of Lyman's deception. As the Felts' lawyer, however, a miscast Chandler Hill never provides the moral compass intended for the part, and Bonita Carol's hospital nurse rarely achieves a genuine emotional connection with her patient.

What begins as a justifiable comeuppance for Lyman's reprehensible behavior evolves into edgier territory in the second act, when he justifies his betrayal as a way of keeping both families happier than they would otherwise have been, because he never felt the inevitable chains that go with being trapped in a marriage. In fact, he's proud of the dedication and support he's given both families in contrast with the hypocrisy of common adultery.

Miller never lets Lyman off the ethical hook (Willrich's smarmy portrayal is every inch the vulgar, monstrous cad he's accused of being), but he allows him enough ambiguity and rhetorical skill to give us pause -- especially when Lyman's excuses uncomfortably embody the pursuit of self-gratification that gained ascendancy in the 1980s and have continued to eat away at the cords of social responsibility ever since. The accusatory pointing finger does not stop with Lyman -- it's only getting started.

As with Miller's other great, symbolically monikered creation, Willie Loman, even Lyman's name has deep thematic resonance. But the differences underscore the reasons why "Mt. Morgan" is no "Salesman." Where Willie achieved a tragic Everyman stature by virtue of his basic decency undone by character flaws he could never recognize, Lyman is far too self-aware and articulate about his deceitful motives to connect as an archetype. While Willrich nails the shallow bantering style with which Lyman scores points in his arguments, there's room for more sympathy and generosity to rescue the character from its specialized, aberrant niche.


`The Ride Down Mt. Morgan'

Where: Alhecama Theatre, 914 Santa Barbara St., Santa Barbara

When: Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m.

Ends: Nov. 2

Price: $22-$32

Contact: (805) 962-8606

Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes

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