You wouldn’t think a 75 minute play could really be as intense as The Print Room’s production of The Last Yankee was, but, wow, what a roller coaster ride this was. Firmly in the continuum of plays about mental illness stretching from Long Day’s Journey into Night right up to last year’s The Effect, The Last Yankee had nearly no sense of datedness to it thirty years later. Mental illness is still a problem, and people still don’t know how to deal with it; the people who have it struggle, while their families frequently have to deal with shame as well as the difficulties of managing the situation.
This play is set in a mental institution in a New England town. Two men, Mr Frick (Andy de la Tour) and Mr Hamilton (Paul Hickey), meet in the lobby, where they’re both waiting to see their wives, who are patients. Frick is an older go-getter, owner of a successful hardware store/lumber yard and possibly a car dealership or two; he and his wife have no children. Hamilton is a 40s-ish father of seven who works as a carpenter and is learning to play the banjo. Frick tries to make small talk with Hamilton, but his obsession with money and status grate on the younger man; Hamilton finally blows up at Frick, saying, “This is why people are mentally ill in this country!” (or something of the sort). He then backs off and apologizes, and the scene ends uncomfortably.
This scene was utterly fascinating for me to watch with a British audience. The obsession with class here has been a constant mystery to me, but here were two American(s) (characters) discussing it in the American way: the focus on clothing, occupation, and parentage seemed so familiar, while the fluidity with which one casts off one’s “birth” caste and moves into another was completely foreign in my new country’s experience. I think people were fascinated by the clues Americans process to see how to “slot” one in to their class, but I was also completely willing to accept that Hamilton really didn’t give a rat’s patootie about what his dad did for a living and was utterly happy working as a carpenter – and with no sense of having “stepped down.” It’s not an American way to feel. In fact, it was the rich man who wanted to see him as “one of my sort” who was the crass and inappropriate one – but to be honest, I think he read that way to everyone.
Hamilton’s speech, though, to me seemed like a Shavian soap box moment on Miller’s part. Class and an obsession with money is what makes people mentally ill? It was a bit hard to swallow – impossible, actually. And Miller took a much more nuanced approach to the causes, effects and impacts of mental illness in the rest of the play, making this bit of posturing seem both out of place and fortunately forgettable as a blip in an otherwise excellent play. Miller will be Miller, standing up for the nobility of the common man … you just have to let it pass. My engagement in this scene was not helped by the fact that de la Tour’s acting was a bit heavy – aimed more for the second balcony rather than the extremely intimate print room. His character wants to be the center of attention, sure, but he was almost vibrating to my eyes and ears.
The second half of the play takes place inside of the women’s ward of the institution, where a woman I assumed to be Mrs Hamilton (Patricia – Matilda Ziegler) can be heard playing ping pong in the rec room with another patient (at least I think they were playing together). Patricia comes into the room with her friend, Karen (Kika Markham), and it quickly becomes clear they are on very different stages of their recovery. Patricia seems a bit manic and a little paranoid, but she’s able to consistently talk in full sentences. She reveals to us that she’s stopped taking her meds, which immediately made me wonder if she was going to have a breakdown during this scene – which would have immediately cut short the chances of her coming home, something her husband clearly wants – if she’s well.
Karen, meanwhile, is having trouble forming sentences and jumps from one thought to the next, frequently leaving things hanging in the air, clearly struggling to get by. Patricia quite matter-of-factly says to Karen that her medications are probably making it hard for her to think, providing Karen with genuine compassion. It’s so odd to think that these women would have bonded while they were in, especially given that Karen’s condition is so severe that you might expect “normal” people to want to stay away from her. In fact, it’s actually rather shocking to think that both of these women are in for what is merely called “depression.” It turns out that Karen is actually Mrs Frick, who’s only there for the first time as opposed to Patricia’s third; what has gone wrong with her, you have to ask: she’s so much more broken than just “she likes to sleep all of the time and can’t go out of the house to do the shopping,” as her husband described her.
Sometime during the scene with Karen and Patricia I started to lose the sense of being in a theater and began to feel like I was actually watching real people and began to get very emotionally caught up in what was going on. Markham’s depiction of a very unwell woman was frighteningly believable, as were the petty, ridiculous fights that Hamilton and Patricia get into later in the scene. But the end, where Karen attempts to show her husband how good she’s become at dancing, just about broke me: Frick’s look of disgust at what he clearly considers his now-freakish wife had me struggling not to cry. Thank God Patricia – accused by her husband of being negative and materialistic – came to her friend’s rescue – along with her “useless” husband and his “stupid” banjo. Both of them accompany Karen through the rest of her dance routine when Frick turns his back on her, while Patricia also cues Frick on how to behave like some semblance of a decent, supportive human being – which Karen clearly, clearly needs to believe he is. And somehow, in doing this, Patricia and her husband find there sense of trust in each other. But I felt gutted for Karen. Hamilton – descendent of Alexander Hamilton – may be the last Yankee, but there’s no shortage of people like Frick who think that a person who isn’t producing maximum value – whether a person who choses carpentry over law or a wife who’s too afraid to go out and do the shopping – have lost their value and should be tossed on the scrap heap.
Miller’s play seems to me an indictment both of the overmedicalization of depression but also of the underlying pressures that cause so many women to experience bad mental health in middle age. I left feeling gutted, forced to remind myself that I was just watching actors and Markham was doing just fine, probably smoking a cigarette and having a laugh after the show. But it felt real and it hurt – a sign, I think, that Arthur Miller was fully in control of his writing during this play.
(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, September 7th, 2013. It continues through October 5th.)