Brief Wives: Arthur Miller’s possibly autobiographical play contemplates one man’s conduct as a husband.
Brief Wives: Arthur Miller’s possibly autobiographical play contemplates one man’s conduct as a husband.

If Don Draper ever spoke fully aloud the stream of tortured thoughts flowing behind his enigmatically handsome mug, he’d probably sound a lot like Quentin, Arthur Miller’s probable self-portrait in After the Fall. The passage of half a century has barely dulled the reflex to read the play as Miller’s self-flagellating roman à clef. It premiered during the first weeks of 1964, three years after his divorce from Marilyn Monroe and a year and a half after her fatal pill overdose. The playwright vigorously argued that After the Fall was not autobiographical. An essay declaring as much is published in the program for Theater J’s harrowing, haunting production. But how else are we to interpret this trial of the mind, wherein a middle-aged lawyer’s contemplation of his third marriage drives him to interrogate his own conduct?

Elia Kazan directed the original New York production, and he too has an analogue here, in the form of a character who’s subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee, and then goes back a second time voluntarily. Quentin also parses his own motives for defending an accused Communist at the height of the Red Scare, albeit less brutally than he autopsies his behavior as a spouse.

It’s the character of Maggie, however, who turns the parallels to Miller’s own life up to brazen volume. A husky-voiced bombshell who blossoms into a singing star after Quentin shows her a molecule of kindness, she looks an awful lot like a straw-Marilyn even before she falls under the sway of various seedy agents, managers, shrinks, and soon enough, barbiturates and booze. Gabriela Fernández-Coffey banishes any trace of mimicry or caricature from her performance, making Maggie’s descent into addiction and despair deeply disquieting to witness.

The narrative follows the free-associative path of memory, though the first act deals primarily with the dissolution of Quentin’s first marriage and the second with his brief, doomed union to the brief, doomed Maggie. An almost unrecognizable, but steady as ever, Jennifer Mendenhall flits throughout the play as Holga, Quentin’s companion in the present. As he wonders if he’s worthy of her, she’s here mostly as a catalyst for his tortured recollections. “How can one ever be sure of one’s good faith?” she asks him. “God, it’s so wonderful to hear you say that,” he answers. “All my women have been so goddamned sure!” For example: Louise, Quentin’s first wife (a sterling Kimberly Schraf), accuses him early on of being fundamentally inattentive to women. Some will undoubtedly see the entire play as evidence she’s right.

Miller’s stage directions prescribed a set dominated by the blasted-out guard tower of a concentration camp. Scenic designer Tony Cisek has replaced that with a curvilinear airport terminal that evokes Eero Saarinen’s designs for the Dulles International Airport and the TWA terminal at what is now John F. Kennedy International. The play is set in New York, and an intercom voice announces arrivals and departures of TWA flights, but in any case the scenic revision is inspired, suggesting that unbounded freedom can be its own kind of prison.

While the entire company is strong, the enterprise rests squarely on the actor standing in Quentin’s Florsheims for every minute of this nearly three-hour ordeal. In this role, Mitchell Hébert tops his superb work in Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s recent reprisal of Clybourne Park. Running on from the wings to take his bow after last Saturday’s performance, Hébert looked relieved and exhausted. He flays himself open as fearlessly as any actor I’ve ever seen, implicating us all in his battle to purge hypocrisy from his heart. To watch him in this role is difficult, but just try to look away.

For what it’s worth, Kazan stated flatly in his doorstop of an autobiography a quarter-century later that After the Fall was indeed all about Miller, and Monroe, and him. He also wrote that while he “truly admired” the play’s second act, its first half was “heavy going and not interesting.” In other words, he wasn’t always right.