BENNINGTON, VT. >> Arthur Miller's "The Ride Down Mt. Morgan" begins with the sound of an automobile engine revving up, followed shortly thereafter by the metallic clangs of a crash. It is emblematic of a life — that of poet and insurance tycoon, Lyman Felt — that crashes and very nearly burns as it disintegrates in free-fall. The sound also is emblematic of a play that crumbles before our very eyes, even in a production that has as skillful a cast as does director Eric Peterson's at Oldcastle Theatre Company.
"The Ride Down Mt. Morgan" had its world premiere in London in 1991 and its American premiere five years later in 1996 at Williamstown Theatre Festival in a production directed by Scott Ellis that starred Frank Langella as Lyman and Patricia Clarkson and Michael Learned as his two wives. Patrick Stewart played Lyman in the short-lived Broadway production in 2000. The play rarely has been produced since and with good reason.
In Lyman Felt (played with energetic, driving commitment by Nigel Gore), Miller has given us one of his least engaging, most insufferable protagonists; on a par with "After the Fall's" self-absorbed Quentin.
Picking up where he left off in last season's far more masterly portrayal of Henry II in "The Lion in Winter," Gore bellows and roars his way as a larger-than-life wannabe who has built a hugely successful socially responsible insurance empire, based in New York, where he has lived with his wife of more than 30 years, Theo (Katrina Ferguson), a model of tidy white Protestant trimness and neatness, and their now adult married daughter, Bessie (Ana Anderson).
But Lyman has been balancing his life in New York with another life in Elmira in upstate New York, where he not only has opened a branch of his company, he has married a lively budding insurance tycoon-to-be named Leah (an incandescent and fiery Hannah Heller), who has been his wife for nine years and with whom he has a son.
In the late evening of a snowy night in Elmira, Lyman drives recklessly down a treacherous mountain road, crashing his car and ending up in a body cast in a local hospital. Of course, the inevitable happens. Theo, informed by the state police of the accident, drives from New York with Bessie and arrives at the Elmira hospital just steps ahead of Leah, who comes barging in demanding answers of the hospital staff.
It's an encounter that the otherwise audacious Lyman suggests he has been guarding against but the universe has other plans. As "The Ride Down Mt. Morgan" spins through a series of flashbacks and dream sequences that detail his relationships with each woman, Lyman unabashedly tries to hold together a life that is nearly as broken as his body. He claims at one point not to understand why Leah and Theo would be upset with the situation in which they find themselves. After all, Lyman argues, he has made each of them happy; happier, he maintains, than either of them would have ben with anyone else. It doesn't hurt that he's made each of them wealthy as well. He also has established a workplace environment that does all the politically and socially correct things and for all the right reasons.
In Elmira, with Leah, whose budding insurance business he has bought, Lyman has been an entirely different man; hunting, fishing, growing organic foods. But he's also a man who defies fate, his fears, death itself. He courts disaster at every turn; challenges it; invites discovery and calamity. At one occasion, he brings Leah with him to New York and books a room at a hotel that is virtually around the corner from the apartment he shares with Theo, unbeknownst to Leah, who has been led by Lyman to believe that they are divorced.
During a safari vacation with Theo and a younger Bessie, he challenges a lion full front, daring the majestic animal to attack. Despite his fear of flying, he travels between New York and Elmira in a small Cessna two-seater.
The play's first act is tightly written and played here at a robust, crisp, at times electrifying clip, especially when Heller's Leah is on stage. She bursts onto the stage with commanding entitlement and never lets go. Heller's Leah has a robust passion for life, a sense of daring, abandon and ambition, a raw sexuality that Lyman has not experienced in some time with Theo, who later touchingly, albeit passingly, references the sexual aridity in her marriage.
But "The Ride Down Mt. Morgan" implodes after intermission. Miller's very best instincts betray him, careen out of control. The writing is downright embarrassing, at times, in an act that shows no signs of drawing to a close, going over well-worn emotional terrain again and again until it does, in fact, come to its indifferent end.
Neither Miller nor Gore (nor, for that matter, did Langella in the Williamstown production) succeed in letting us understand what it is about Lyman that binds these two women to him even as the truth about him repulses them.
Richard Howe delivers a beautifully measured performance as Lyman's good friend and trusted attorney, and Cheryl Howard, despite being inaudible in her final scene with Lyman, and Anderson are equally credible as, respectively, a motherly nurse and Bessie, who does not take betrayal by her father well. But, like Gore, Ferguson and Heller, who comes closer than anyone to getting the better of Miller, Howard and Anderson are undermined by a playwright who loses his sense of purpose and journey.
"Why are you all talking nonsense?" Lyman rails at one point. Good question. Even more to the point — why should we even care?
What: "The Ride Down Mt. Morgan" by Arthur Miller. Directed by Eric Peterson
With: Nigel Gore, Katrina Ferguson, Hannah Heller, Cheryl Howard, Ana Anderson, Richard Howe
Where: Oldcastle Theatre Company, 331 Main St., Bennington, Vt.
When: Through Oct. 23. Evenings — Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30. Matinees — Thursday and Sunday at 2
Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes (including one intermission)
Tickets: $37 (students $12)
How: (802) 447-0564; oldcastletheatre.org