Oldcastle channels Arthur Miller in sublime "Mt. Morgan"

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BENNINGTON >> With theaters across the country commemorating the 100th anniversary of Arthur Miller's birth for the past year, Oldcastle Theatre Company is taking a less-travelled path as its offering to the centennial with its final 2016 season production, "The Ride Down Mt. Morgan."

The play, which runs through Oct. 23, is directed by Oldcastle artistic director Eric Peterson, who claimed to be mesmerized by a production of "Mt. Morgan" almost 20 years ago at Williamstown Theatre Festival.

It also features a cast of six Oldcastle veterans, all known and admired by local audiences.

We find ourselves in a hospital room in upstate NY, after Lyman Felt (Nigel Gore), poet turned insurance tycoon, is recovering after crashing his car descending Mt. Morgan in a snowstorm. Caring for him is Nurse Logan (Cheryl Howard), and looking out for his interest and his estate is his attorney Tom (Richard Howe).

Lyman's wife of 30 years Theodora (Katrina Ferguson) arrives from New York City with adult daughter Bessie (Ana Anderson) in tow. What they find is another Mrs. Felt, the younger Jewish entrepreneur Leah, who Lyman had married nine years earlier. She comes complete with a young child fathered by Lyman, waiting at home.

The action in this story is not linear, as Miller has us flashing in and out of Lyman's past, paralleling it to his forays in and out of consciousness in the present. As such, we are given a way to try and understand the kind of man who got this far: a larger than life, unapologetic, egomaniacal yet clearly passionate near-genius who went from poet to insurance tycoon just because he could.

The cast of this complex and heart-wrenching play was, simply put, exceptional.

Howard was a voice of reason as Nurse Logan, as she rightly projected both the calm and mild humor that could pull is back in from the rollercoaster of Lyman's past. Several times during the play, Howard successfully recalibrated the audience's consciousness, subtly and smoothly.

Howe was his brilliant self, tackling Tom as an advisor and confidante who could build bridges and relate to all parties involved, even though his job was to represent one side. Like Nurse Logan, Howe's Tom was a highly successful voice of reason in the madness.

The young Anderson has a knack for emotional extremes, be they comic or tragic. She was utterly convincing as a daughter torn between love and loathing. Her Bessie forced us to always look at Lyman from a different light. That character can get lost in stereotype; Anderson doesn't allow it.

Heller's many acting talents were on display as she tackled Leah and made her even stronger than one might expect. Heller adroitly walked the high wire between intellect, indignation, sensuality, and resolve. Heller's Leah might have been taken in by Lyman, but was no one's fool, we come to find out, through Heller's flawless performance.

Ferguson, who has graced regional stages for years, might have given the performance of a lifetime as Theo. Her stateliness, dignity, and oh, those precious facial expressions which only she can manage time after time, took us through a tsunami of emotions. Ferguson knows when caricature ends and humanity begins, and showed us time and again just how good she is at walking in both worlds through her stunning acting.

Finally, Gore had to believe he just completed a marathon by the end of this play. The veteran British actor was everywhere, shouting, emoting, crying, defying everyone around him and standing for a character the rest of us had to treat as either villain, or victim.

Some moments, we felt Gore's pain. Others, he drew our scorn as if he were a hooligan disrupting the pitch during a match of his beloved Chelsea Football Club. But if you understand the passion a Brit has for his football side, then you clearly will know what Gore was doing with every ounce of his soul. He didn't just portray Lyman. He had to shower him off after that performance. Exquisite work.

The show ran at right around two hours, which included a 10 minute intermission.

Lights by David V. Groupe added a mysterious touch, and no, there isn't a lion in the house – that was just part of Cory Wheat's excellent sound. Costumes by Ursula McCarty excelled, especially in the quick multifunctional scene changes, and Leah and Theo's eye catching coats.

Richard Howe doubled up on set design and delivered an austere yet surreal sense of place, and Gary Poe ran a tight ship as stage manager, evidenced by the production's impeccable timing.

Over the years, "The Ride Down Mt. Morgan" never got the attention of Miller's other plays, most likely because so many of them ended up as huge hits and are constantly produced to this day.

But this is no lesser work. It is a powerful human tale, a parable of what makes us tick, and why we do what we do – whether others see it as right or wrong.

As such, it is more than worth the drive to Oldcastle, and the price of admission. Make it a point to take in this Miller tribute, and enjoy some of the finest acting this side of Broadway, or anywhere.

"The Ride Down Mt. Morgan" will run through Oct. 23 at Oldcastle Theatre Company, 331 Main St. in Bennington, Vt. For tickets and info call 802-447-0564 or visit: oldcastletheatre.org.

— Telly Halkias is an award-winning freelance journalist, and a member of the American Theatre Critics Assn. (ATCA)


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