By Bernard Weinraub
Directed by Peter DuBois
Through June 16
The Huntington Theatre Company
Calderwood Pavillon, Boston
Reviewed by Bobby Franklin
(Note: This play had an emotional impact on me, and because of that I have decided to focus more on the story than in writing an in-depth review of the production.)
Watching a recent performance of Bernard Weinraub’s Fall at the Calderwood Pavillon was an emotional experience. The play about Arthur Miller, his wife Inge Morath, and their son Daniel who was born with Down Syndrome is not a happy story. It certainly stirred up a lot of anger in me. Before I get into the story I want to say a few words about the production so as not to confuse my feelings about the play with the my opinion of how fine a production this was.
The cast is led by Josh Stamberg as the great playwright Arthur Miller, with Joanne Kelly as his third and last wife. John Hickok plays theatrical producer Robert Whitehead, Joanna Glushak as Dr. Wise. Nolan James Tierce, an actor with Down Syndrome, takes on the role of Daniel, and while Mr. Tierce does not have a lot of lines, I found his words to be the most moving of any uttered by the rest of the cast.
This was a superb production from top to bottom with each cast member giving strong performances, a tight script, incredible sets and lighting, along with the usual excellent direction of Peter DuBois.
The difficulty I had with it had nothing to do with the production, it had to do with the subject matter, and Arthur Miller in particular. I know author Bernard Weinraub did not want to portray him as a villain, but after watching Josh Stamberg’s solid performance as Mller I felt nothing but disgust for that self-centered hypocrite. Joanne Kelly’s Inge comes across a bit more sympathetically, but in the end I even felt the pangs of loathing for her.
Early in the play we witness Miller and Morath after she has given birth to their son Daniel. They are in the hospital and are given the news that there is a problem with their son. When they are told he has been born with Down Syndrome they are devastated, as just about any parents would be. They have to make some decisions about how to care for Daniel. It is 1966 and at that time doctors were advising parents that the best course was to have “these children” institutionalized as that would ensure they would get the best care. Inge wants to keep her son, Arthur can barely look at him. The decision is made to send him to an institution. It is all quite heartbreaking.
For the almost two hours that follow we witness the story of how Arthur and Inge went on with their lives. Of how Miller refused to even see his son, or as it is said “deleted” him from his life. The great moralizer continued to speak out about social justice causes, preaching on how we should treat each other all the while neglecting his own son. He continued living life fully in the public eye while keeping Daniel hidden away.
We hear of how his creative abilities diminished after Daniel was born. I am not sure if that is supposed to elicit some sympathy for the man, but I could not muster any. Now, I am fully aware that at the time of Daniel’s birth things were different. Many parents were only trying to do the right things when following the advice of the doctors who recommended institutionalization. However, in Miller’s case it is clear he wanted Daniel “erased” from his life. He saw this as “a life sentence”. Why? Was it shame? Was it fear he would not be able to be a good father to his son? Or was it merely that Daniel was going to be an imposition on his and Inge’s lives? Whatever it was, I saw no sign that he felt any love at all for Daniel. It was that coldness that struck me deeply and made me unable to find any sympathy for the man. In fact, by the time the play was concluded I was filled with disgust for him.
Fall gives us much to think about. It is easy to say “it was different then,” that today we understand people better and are more compassionate, but is that really true? Today, more likely than not Arthur and Inge would have known about Daniel’s condition before he was born. They most likely would have “deleted” him before he came into the world. Miller would have been able to continue moralizing with a clear conscience. The latest figures I could find say 67% to 90% of unborn babies diagnosed with Down Syndrome are not brought to term. It has to be a heart wrenching decision for parents to make, and I can’t imagine being in that postion. I doubt very much that the parents who make such a decision feel they are erasing a child from their lives. They must suffer greatly. I doubt very much Miller would have agonized for even a moment over the decision, and that is what I found so disturbing. It is and should be, a very difficult and heart breaking decision.
We find out at the end of the play that Daniel is still alive, and he has lived a very happy and fulfilling life eventually living with a foster family who loved him. He did go to meet his father once but was not greeted warmly. Daniel’s words spoken by Nolan James Tierce at the end of the play show what a truly remarkable man Daniel has become. How he came to know the true meaning of family. And, how lucky the world is that he was not deleted.
On a personal note. I grew up in a neighborhood where there were a number of children with Down Syndrome. This was not long before Daniel was born. I never heard about having such children sent off to institutions. They were part of our community and were well loved. Maybe, people in my area could not afford to send their children away. I believe they kept them because they could not imagine life without them. With the advances in science that now allows us to know before birth if a child will be born with Down Syndrome I can’t help but wonder if we really have changed all that much. Some questions haunt me. Is a child with Down Syndrome less worthy of being brought into the world? If so, what does that say about the children who are living? Are they less worthy than others? These are hard questions.
As I was leaving the theater I was thinking how nice it would have been to see the story told from Daniel’s side. This was still all about Arthur Miller and his egotism. Attention must be paid, and it should be paid: to Daniel. When you see Fall listen closely to the words spoken from the heart by Nolan James Tierce at the end. Pay close attention to those words as they are so much more important than trying to figure out why Arthur Miller behaved so terribly.