The Comforts of unreason: Arthur Miller’s The Last Yankee gets the Print Room treatment

7th September 2013

We are always on the lookout for an excuse to visit The Print Room – so far this small venue has delighted us with a little known Ibsen play and very well-known Chekov one, both brilliantly produced.  This time, we came to see another ‘undiscovered classic’ in the form of Arthur Miller’s ‘The Last Yankee’.  We weren’t surprised to learn that this play was written three years before Broken Glass, which we saw in another excellent production at the Tricycle.  The themes of mental illness, identity and marital discord which the two plays share seemed very personal to Miller and he clearly felt compelled to return to them for a more detailed exploration.

Designer Jamie Vartan has made an excellent job of making the space look as depressing as possible.  We assumed at first that this must be set in the 50s before realising that this was meant to be a state mental ‘institution’ from the early 1990s.  The audience is in the space from the start, as we walk along the L-shaped corridor to get to our seats, and at one point the partially hidden foyer doubles as a recreation room.  The seating, in an inverted arrow formation along two sides of the auditorium, worked well in making us feel as though we were institutionalised along with the characters, but some of the sightlines could have been better arranged, as there were rather too many opportunities to see the backs of the actors heads, which also occasionally obscured the view as well.

The action centres around two very different wives, both admitted to a state mental hospital for depression, and their relationships with their husbands.  The play opens with the two husbands meeting in the waiting room, both looking for a consistent reason for their wives’ condition, and instead only finding that their situations couldn’t be more different.  So we find out that John Frick is a rich building merchant, whilst Leroy Hamilton is an impoverished carpenter, in love with his craft but hopeless with money.  The opening scene skillfully explores the themes of the play in a naturalistic way without suggesting any answers.  What seems clear is that the wives are carrying the burden of their thwarted ambitions while the husbands seem to have everything they want, except for a sane wife. In the second act, we see Patricia Hamilton, an old hand, taking new arrival Karen Frick under her wing as she reveals that she has come off her medication for the first time in years, and is almost scared of how much better she feels.  But is she ready to go home?

As Patricia, Matilda Ziegler brings out the angst-ridden self-doubt of a person who has been in and out of hospital and doesn’t know what is normal anymore.  She imbues the character with a positive drive and intelligence, and shows how it is frequently misdirected – ironically the only thing she now relies on is religious faith.  As Leroy, Paul Hickey starts with the facade of solidity and stoicism, before revealing deep insecurities and repressed inner conflict.  Instead of being the rock on which to build a family, he becomes the wall his wife is banging her head against.  As John Frick, Andy de la Tour exudes the relaxed and slightly unsettling high status of the self-made man, barely able to conceal his impatience and embarrassment at the plight of his wife, whilst trying to keep up a front of benign indulgence.  Kika Markham as his wife has less to work with, but perfectly captures the fragility of an older woman trying to come to terms with her incarceration whilst drugged into oblivion.

This is a well-written and engaging exploration of mental health which asks the question – is mental illness and intrinsic weakness of character or an inevitable reaction to circumstances?  And what obligations do we have to live up to the expectations of our ancestors and families?  Perhaps Miller is right not to attempt an answer, but at under 90 minutes the play seems a little insubstantial, particularly the lack of a resolution.  Having said that there are some great dramatic moments, including a rather surreal tap-dancing dance sequence in which both couples share a brief and uncomfortable moment of artistic collaboration.

We had one quibble with the presence of a silent character who spends most of the play asleep, with a short break to change some scenery halfway through.  It was never clear what the purpose of the character was and it didn’t really add to the drama, bringing a jarring note of symbolism to a play that is at its best when focussing on the minutiae of human interaction.

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