If there’s any truth to the old theatrical saw ‘bad dress rehearsal, good show’, Rapture Theatre’s final run-through must have terrible. This was an extremely assured, powerful and moving opening night, the first in a marathon 24-date tour throughout Scotland.
Written in 1991, Arthur Miller’s play depicts Leroy Hamilton’s visit to his wife in hospital. Patricia has suffered from depression for decades, caused, perhaps, by her disappointment in her failure to achieve the American Dream. Conversely, Leroy, the ‘Last Yankee’ (a descendent of US Founding Father, Alexander Hamilton), long ago surrendered his ambitions for wealth and now leads the life of a humble carpenter. Although they can’t know it at the outset, this visit will draw the pair towards decisions concerning their future, influenced by John and Karen Frick, a rich couple but every bit as unhappy.
Opening with a haunting rendition of ‘Que Sera, Sera’, the performance got off to an atmospheric start, the stage lit sparsely to reveal a set used as both hospital ward and waiting room. Indeed, Lisa Sangster’s design and David Cunningham’s lighting complemented each another highly effectively throughout the play.
The cast too were excellent. David Tarkenter’s Leroy initially appears happy with his own approach to life, but inwardly struggles to cope with his wife’s illness. Tarkenter’s performance is natural, understated and sympathetic, while Pauline Turner’s Patricia is similarly affecting. Here is a woman whose life has been hijacked by hospitalisation, yet in many ways she remains as strong and empowered as her husband. These characters, however, retain long-standing issues with each other. The interplay between them as they attempt to repair their relationship provides much dramatic tension as the audience wills them towards a resolution that will allow them to move on.
Stewart Porter (Frick) and Jane McCarry’s (Karen) performances are slightly more comedic, yet no less poignant in portraying another couple united by love but divided by their failure to fully communicate. McCarry’s tap-dance routine, coupled with Porter’s reaction, is heartrending.
No character is perfect; rather, all are doing their best amidst trying circumstances. Neither wife is happy. Neither husband truly understands why, both straining to fully accept that depressive mental health issues are not the fault of the sufferer. Each marriage contains resentments and regrets, secretly harboured for years. Yet, ultimately, there is a deep affection between both sets of spouses that refuses to die. The cast successfully illustrate this, feeding off the nuances that develop in the relationship between the Hamiltons and the Fricks as the play progresses. Ostensibly very different, the two families have much in common.
Rightly described as ‘humorous and, ultimately, uplifting’, the play has laughter and emotional buoyancy at the end. However, typically from Miller, the humour is complex, shot through with thoughtfully calculated intent, infused with meaning, shaded by sadness, and is all the richer and more rewarding for it.
Natalie Clark also deserves credit as The Patient, spending the entire performance locked within the silent stasis of her bed. The depiction of being bedridden works well as a metaphor for the experience of depression itself. Director Michael Emans suggested afterwards that The Patient also highlights the movement that occurs for Patricia and Karen during the play. One makes progress, the other regresses. The Patient, though, continues unchanged, her direction undecided.
There are, then, for the female characters, three possibilities: recovery, regression or stasis. Miller clearly wants a happy ending for all, but is realistic enough to realise this isn’t immediately achievable. Recovery from mental health issues takes time, patience and perseverance on the part of all affected. This places responsibility on the two men who love Patricia and Karen even when they can’t understand them. Leroy and John are, like many carers, required to rise to the challenge of caring, while also dealing with their individual concerns. Here it is impossible to avoid the suspicion that Leroy and John’s turmoil reflects the inner conflicts Miller faced himself in handling the mental health issues of his second wife, Marilyn Monroe, and his later response to the birth of a son with Down Syndrome.
The evening concluded – as will all performances in the tour – with a talk hosted by Michael Emans and representatives from See Me, the Scottish organisation dedicated to tackling mental health stigma and discrimination. Volunteer Leanne McKillop gave a profoundly inspiring account of her history of eating disorders, speaking of the stigma she endured, sometimes from within even the under-trained health facilities that were supposed to help her. Leanne’s testimony was honest, informative and ultimately hopeful in that she is living proof that mental health issues can be overcome or, at least, made manageable.
The Last Yankee is the second production in Rapture’s Miller Season, following a successful tour of All My Sons in September. I missed that but, on the strength of this production, wild horses wouldn’t stop me attending a third.
Written by Mark Jones
The Last Yankee is touring throughout Scotland until Sat 7 Nov, next showing at Summerhall in Edinburgh on Fri 2 and Sat 3 Oct. Visit this page for full listings and to book tickets for all performances.