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At the outset of The Last Yankee, the final one-act play in Theater J’s three-part compilation, Danger: Memory!, two men are comparing notes on the wives they’ve come to visit at a state mental institution. Both women are depressed, and both men are clueless as to why—which, in effect, answers that question for the audience.

But because Arthur Miller is not the sort of playwright to settle for glib explanations in any matter concerning psychology, patrons who think they’ve already got the characters pegged have another think coming. The play delves and probes, linking the lives of its protagonists until they form a community of pain. Then, it finds exhilarating ways to release them. By the final fade, what began as a tale of marital miscommunication has blossomed into a stirring paean to the power of shared dreams.

Not that this result seems likely during the play’s opening conversation. John (Irv Ziff), a prosperous gent in his late 60s, owns a lumber yard and a car dealership and has so many irons in the fire that he can barely focus on the problems his wife, Karen (Dorothea Hammond), is having. When he does, his chief thought is that she really ought to be happy, since he buys her everything she wants, and has done so for decades.

Leroy (Tim Carlin), being younger and less prosperous, doesn’t shoulder quite so much responsibility for his wife’s moods. Still, he wishes that Patricia (Paula Gruskiewicz), now midway through her third hospital stay, could find pleasure in a sunrise again, and relief from the anxiety that grips her.

As the men speak animatedly, recalling early signs of trouble and swapping guesses about possible causes, director Shira Piven lets us see the objects of their concern: Karen shuffling aimlessly, barely lifting her feet as she moves, Patricia sprawling wide-eyed on the ground. Both women look just as passive as their husbands are making them sound—which makes their transformations all the more remarkable when they get a chance to speak for themselves.

Yes, they’re troubled. But they’re hardly helpless. Patricia is sharp and frenziedly analytical, at least partly because she’s weaned herself from the pills that kept her in a tranquil fog for 20 years. Her doctor doesn’t know she has gone 21 days without them, and she’s not sure how she’s going to break the news to Leroy, because it’s just one of a raft of things she wants to tell him now that she’s lucid. She wants him to know, among other things, that she’s decided not to blame him for not chasing success harder, for not having more confidence in himself, for not wanting more.

Karen, meanwhile, has developed habits of thought that make her a sort of walking non sequitur. No two sentences appear to emanate from the same part of her brain, and yet, it’s not hard to see a kinship between her flighty synapses and the finger-in-every-pie managerial style her husband affects for his businesses. These two are well-matched, even if they no longer quite remember why.

Miller sets everything up so deftly, you hardly realize he’s also stuffed the play with the America-in-microcosm issues that inflect so much of his work: business and family, politics and faith, principle and principal. By the time he’s brought the two couples together—and had Patricia and Leroy fall into a clinch after a screaming match that mixes desperation with desire—the play has acquired surprising dramatic weight for a work so short.

The two playlets that open the evening are, by comparison, Miller lite. They mean to be ruminations on memory—chiefly on the tricks memory plays on the elderly—but they play like throwaways. In The Ryan Interview, the author sends a young reporter (Gruskiewicz) to chat with a 100-year-old New Englander (David Harscheid), to no particular purpose. The old codger trots out some pleasant anecdotes about the foibles of folks who’ve long since died, but he’s really remarkable only for having avoided all social involvements—which makes him a less-than-compelling dramatic subject. He says proudly that because he has never taken a job (hoping to avoid getting a Social Security number), the government thinks he doesn’t exist. After making his acquaintance, audiences may well decide the government got it right.

The second play, I Can’t Remember Anything, brings together a wealthy widow (Hammond) and the neighbor (Ziff) who was her husband’s best friend. She’s grieving (“I cannot for the life of me figure out why I haven’t died”), he’s waxing philosophical (“All we are is a lot of talking nitrogen”), and the playwright is mostly killing time.

It doesn’t help that neither of these curtain-raisers is more than indifferently acted (I found myself re-inflecting lines in my head to make sense of them), and that Piven has staged them haphazardly on Danila Korgodsky’s leaf-strewn setting. Those leaves initially seem a swell idea—the autumn of life, dried-up memories ready to blow away—but they wear out their welcome as they get stuck in actors’ hair and sweaters. Since the director already has company members engaging in all sorts of irrelevant stage business with record albums and glassware, the evening doesn’t really need the extra visual distraction.

Still, when Miller’s prose asserts itself, as it does in the clean, muscular dialogue of The Last Yankee, none of the frills matter. After ditzing around with the first two plays, Piven rediscovers in the third the mix of optimism and ferocity that fueled her splendid mounting of David Mamet’s The Old Neighborhood last season. The performances—especially Gruskiewicz’s wounded Patricia and Carlin’s anguished Leroy—are right on the money, their passions feel real, and, as with all of Miller’s best work, you hit the sidewalk feeling that, yes, there are fights worth fighting. CP