BENNINGTON, VT. — Arthur Miller was a paragon of 20th-century American letters. Often defined by the visceral lines in his many theatrical works, Miller (1915-2005) once famously uttered this summation of a life well-lived: "Maybe all one can do is hope to end up with the right regrets."
Miller might as well have been referring to Lyman Felt, the protagonist in one of his later plays, "The Ride Down Mt. Morgan."
With theaters across the country commemorating the 100th anniversary of Miller's birth for the past year, Oldcastle Theatre Company is taking a less-traveled path as its offering to the centennial, by opening "Mt. Morgan" this Friday.
The play, which runs through Oct. 23, will be directed by Oldcastle artistic director Eric Peterson, who said he was mesmerized by a production of "Mt. Morgan" almost 20 years ago at Williamstown Theatre Festival.
"The play, despite being written by one of our greatest playwrights, is rarely produced," Peterson said. "That's in part because there are so many great and well-known Miller plays. This one, a later play, has gotten a bit lost."
The main character, Peterson continued, is one of the most theatrical created by Miller.
"Lyman Felt will be hated by some, but no one will find him less than multidimensional and fascinating," Peterson said.
Lyman Felt, played by veteran British actor and newly minted U.S. citizen Nigel Gore, is a wealthy man of great appetites and even greater entitlements. Lyman is in his 50s, a poet turned insurance tycoon.
Driving down Mount Morgan in a snowstorm, he crashes his car and ends up in the hospital. His daughter Bessie (Ana Anderson) and his two wives — yes, that's correct — come to his side.
They are Theodora (Katrina Ferguson), the older WASP he married 30 years earlier, and Leah (Hannah Heller), the young Jewish entrepreneur, his wife for the past nine years. Also present are Nurse Logan (Cheryl Howard), and Tom, Lyman's lawyer (Richard Howe).
Now Lyman's past, bigamy and all, has caught up with him.
Gore said playing Lyman was both "intimidating and exhilarating" and recalled his own brush with Miller in 1993, when Gore was training at the Trinity Repertory Conservatory in Providence.
"Miller has such intellectual muscularity as a playwright, and he needed it to endure the things he had to in his life," Gore said. "He visited us when I was at Trinity Rep, and it was as if God had entered the room. He was already in his late 70s, but his presence was that of a giant. He was a force of nature, and I was in total awe of every word he spoke that day."
Gore agreed with Peterson that there is no middle ground with Lyman Felt, even if audience and actors must first wrestle with an element deemed critical to Miller's intent.
"I haven't decided how I feel about Lyman," Gore said. "What I do know is that this is the first time in all my years of acting that I feel I have to shower my character off after rehearsals. And that's not a bad thing, because it really speaks to the human dilemma that Miller has created."
Ferguson, who plays Theodora, said "Mt. Morgan" is her first Arthur Miller play, and one with complexity attractive to an actor.
"It's a fascinating script, there are no wasted words, Miller's writing is very lean, and he's a master craftsman," Ferguson said. "In developing the character of Theodora Felt, I'm constantly looking for ways to make her multidimensional."
Ferguson went on to say that despite their long careers, this was the first time she and Gore had collaborated on a project.
In working so closely during rehearsals on their complementary characters, Ferguson offered her assessment of the play's inherent duality on her colleague, given that Theodora is the polar opposite of Lyman, but stands toe-to-toe in facing down his excesses:
"Having to confront Theodora, Nigel also has the challenge of making Lyman a multidimensional character," Ferguson said. "At the end of the play, I think we ask ourselves 'is Lyman a villain or a victim?' "
Peterson concluded by saying that he expected to hear many passionate opinions following "Mt. Morgan" performances.
And perhaps echoing Miller on having the right regrets, Peterson added that many audience members will leave with questions to ponder, as the play is not just about one man, but also about the world that allowed him to thrive.
"Lyman says in the play that one can't be true to oneself and true to others," Peterson said. "Is that really true? If it is, then the answer we must find is whether can we live that way and have a good, just society."
ON STAGE ...
What: 'The Ride Down Mt. Morgan' at Oldcastle Theatre Company
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; Matinees at 2 p.m. on Thursday and Sundays. Oct. 7-23
Where: 31 Main St. in Bennington, Vt.
Information: Call 802-447-0564 or visit: oldcastletheatre.org