Saturday, 5 October 2013

'The Last Yankee' - Clarity in the Throes of Illness.

Last night, I saw a play at the Print Room in London that reminded me why I love the theatre.  'The Last Yankee' by Arthur Miller was originally performed as a twenty minute one act play as part of a festival at the New York Ensemble Theatre in 1991.  It was subsequently expanded to a two scene play and staged in New York and London in 1993.  Thanks to my sister's play collection, I can confirm that it was staged at the Young Vic and starred Helen Burns, Peter Davison, David Healy and Margot Leicester (Zoe Wanamaker was also in the initial run of the show; she was subsequently replaced by Margot Leicester).

As the play is comprised of only two scenes, it is comparatively short but its potency still resonates twenty years after its first performances as a two scene play.  'The Last Yankee' is set in a state mental hospital in America.  Two women are being treated for depression as inpatients, whilst their partners attend when they can to visit their spouses.

My first observation of the play in its current staging was the construction of the mise-en-scene.  The audience walk around a corridor which has been constructed to resemble a hospital corridor with signs leading to the Reception area and the hospital rooms.  Also such details as a map of the institution are included on the wall to heighten the audience's understanding of the size of mental institutions.

The first scene in the play is set in a waiting room, so when the audience reaches the performance space, we are invited to sit in rows around the space which is also notable because of an occupied bed in the corner (occupied as it later transpires by a stagehand who helps to set up the next scene as though a confused patient performing elaborate cleaning rituals.  Also significantly, the occupied bed is mentioned in the original play, although the occupant remains stationary in the original 1993 productions of the play).  The first scene is a dialogue between the two male characters in the play, Leroy Hamilton and John Frick talking about their partners, once they have overcome the initial tensions that often overwhelm men in waiting areas and other social situations.  Small talk clarifying hospital procedure and reflections on the parking area leading to more profound and telling reflections of male attitudes to mental illness.  Arthur Miller successfully evokes the male tendency to rationalise and understand even those things that cannot be rationalised:

Frick. I just can't figure it out.  There's no bills; we're very well fixed; she's got a beautiful home... There's really not a trouble in the world.  Although, God knows, maybe that's the trouble...

Leroy. Oh no, I got plenty of bills and it didn't help mine.  I don't think it's how many bills you have.

Frick. What do you think it is, then?

Leroy. Don't ask me, I don't know.

                                                                                        (Scene 1, Page 4)

The focus on the male attitude towards their wives' illnesses is touching and accurate.  They cannot solve anything that doesn't have a physical basis through monetary transactions or material means.  Yes, they can pay for their wives to be treated but ultimately, they cannot step in and improve their wives' lives directly.  They can only offer support.

The second scene which breaks down into three distinct sections, one involving the two wives talking (Patricia Hamilton and Karen Frick) then Leroy and Patricia conversing followed by an ensemble section.  As the two women talk, it becomes apparent that Patricia's character is gradually reaching a state of contentment, not shared by Karen Frick.  This is suggested by a conversation when Karen seeks advice from Patricia (who she is clearly devoted to) as to where to shop for daily necessities.  Karen keeps forgetting and worries about getting things wrong. 

As Patricia states to Karen:

Patricia.... I'm wondering if you've got the wrong medication.  But I guess you'll never overdose - you vomit at the drop of a hat.  It may be your secret blessing.

                                                                                     (Scene 2, Page 18)

Patricia does not suffer from the same indecisions, having stopped her medication for twenty one days (her choice).  The audience subsequently learns that Patricia's brothers committed suicide providing a strong causal link to Patricia's depression (or maybe, that's simply my male assumption?)

The section where Leroy and Patricia explore their previous lives together and where they are now contains one of the most telling and beautifully expressive exchanges in the canon on play writing:

Patricia. There was something else you said.  About standing on line.

Leroy. On line?

Patricia. That you'll always be at the head of the line because... (Breaks off.)

Leroy. I'm the only one on it.

Patricia.... is that really true?  You do compete, don't you?  You must, at least in your mind?

Leroy. Only with myself.  We're really all on a one-person line, Pat.  I learned that in these years.

                                                                                              (Scene 2, Page 28)

The acute realisation that ultimately all of our struggles are with ourselves is the point at which progression can be made.  Prior to this, we are dependants, circling our families seeking answers and reassurances.  When we step outside of the pattern of dependency, we become more adept at exploring our own needs and feelings.  Support is necessary but not at the expense of our own feelings and values.  In many respects, this section of the play is the crux of the playwright's intent.  The primary lesson of the piece.

The subsequent section in which all of the characters are together and Karen dances, reveals the essential truth that Patricia and Leroy's marriage is ultimately more growth promoting that the Frick's relationship where Karen feels under appreciated by her husband.  John Frick's seeming embarrassment of his wife is heart wrenching as she tap dances.

'The Last Yankee' in its current incarnation at the Print Room starring Andy De La Tour as Frick, Paul Hickey as Leroy, Kika Markham as Karen and Matilda Ziegler as Patricia, perfectly realises the fluidity and beauty of Miller's prose.  The play is an ensemble piece, so highlighting individual performances would be detrimental to the audience's appreciation of the play.  It's a play about mental illness, relationships and ultimately about the force within that keeps us going.  You choose the force... Love, survival, God or something else?  It's your life.

                                                                                    (Barry Watt - 5th October 2013)


All quotes are extracted from 'The Last Yankee' by Arthur Miller.  The play edition published by Methuen Drama in 1993.

'The Last Yankee' at the Print Room finishes tonight.  I hope that it transfers somewhere else.  It's brilliant.


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