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The Job of Life

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A MEMORY OF TWO MONDAYS

Raven Theatre Company

A friend of mine recently invited her elderly parents to visit her in Florida. But the day before they were to arrive, they called to say they weren't coming. It seems her father had experienced a paralyzing anxiety attack, the first in his life, and would not leave town. A prescription of Valium calmed him down, and he eventually made the trip. During their visit my friend gradually recognized that the source of her father's anxiety was his fear of death. He is 83, and taking a long trip was, unconsciously at least, an overwhelming symbol of the final trip he soon will be taking.

We tend to think of symbolism as the preserve of poets and painters, but symbolism is the stuff of daily life too. Our language is rooted in metaphor and simile, and we think symbolically. That's why a mundane event can explode with new meaning when viewed from a slightly different perspective.

Arthur Miller performs precisely that trick in his vibrant one-act A Memory of Two Mondays. Seemingly a simple transcription of ordinary events in an auto-parts warehouse, this play is actually a rich, redolent symbol of life itself.

The central character is Bert, who works in the warehouse to earn enough money to enroll in college. In this dark, dusty place littered with excelsior used to pack auto parts, he encounters a menagerie of characters. Gus is a gruff old German taskmaster with an eye for the ladies. Larry is a family man who has just tried to add some excitement to his dreary life by buying an expensive Austin--a foolish purchase he justifies by insisting that "they've got the most beautifully laid-out valves in the country on that car, and I want it, that's all."

Agnes is the aging switchboard operator who never married, and Patricia is the sexy young secretary who takes a serious interest in Larry after he buys the Austin. Tom is an alcoholic who miraculously gives up booze after Mr. Eagle, the owner, gives him one last chance, and Kenneth is a sensitive young Irish immigrant who is turning to booze to numb the despair creeping into his soul.

There are 14 characters in all--an impossible number for a one-act given today's economy. So the Raven Theatre is performing a public service simply by providing an opportunity to see this seldom-produced work. (Originally paired with A View From the Bridge on Broadway in 1955, A Memory of Two Mondays was quickly eclipsed by the popularity of the other play. Yet it remained one of Miller's favorites. In the introduction to his collected plays he wrote, "I love nothing printed here better than this play.")

But the Raven production is no mere museum piece, for director Frank Farrell has done a superb job of revealing Miller's intent. By deftly focusing the audience's attention on each character in turn and by giving each event the crisp, indelible shock of a memory, Farrell manages to transmute this collection of simple scenes into a symbol for life.

Like life, working in the auto-parts warehouse is essentially meaningless. Bert is trying to transcend the emptiness and tedium through education. He arrives at work with a copy of the New York Times and Tolstoy's War and Peace, which he says is hard to read on the subway: "All those Russian names."

Although Bert is the main character--the person having the memories mentioned in the title--he is not very involved in the action. Like so many young people working at a job they consider temporary, he is a detached observer. The play is not about his relationship to the other characters--a familiar Miller preoccupation--but about his relationship to the memories unfolding in front of the audience.

Those memories challenge Bert to interpret what happens to the characters between the first Monday and the second, about six months later. Gus loses his wife and in his grief grows defiant as well as indifferent toward his job. Tommy gives up alcohol and becomes critical of others who cannot exert the same willpower. Larry sells his beloved Austin and resigns himself to a life of unrelenting domestic responsibility, while Kenneth, feeling the first effects of his alcoholism, begins to forget lines of the Irish poems he has memorized.

The only time Bert participates directly in an event is when he and Kenneth wash the grimy windows of the warehouse on the first Monday. As the first window comes clean, Kenneth breaks into one of the poetic interludes that punctuate the script: "Hey, look down there! / See the old man sitting in a chair? / And roses all over the fence! / Oh, that's a lovely back yard!" By the second Monday the window looks out on a cathouse, and Kenneth is upset by all the workers gaping at the scantily clad women now clearly visible from the warehouse. "Shouldn't have washed the windows, I guess," says Mr. Eagle, when Kenneth brings the situation to his attention.

One would expect Bert to be happy to get out of the warehouse, but when the big day arrives he experiences another unpleasant aspect of life--his insignificance. In another poetic interlude Bert muses: "God, it's so peculiar to leave a place! / I know I'll remember them as long as I live, / As long as I live they'll never die, / And still I know that in a month or two / They'll forget my name, and mix me up / With another boy who worked here once, / And went. Gee, it's a mystery!" And while an education may give Bert's life some meaning, leaving for college introduces him to the profound aloneness we all must endure.

Farrell draws wonderful performances from all of the cast members, even those with only a few lines. Ron Sherry seems to radiate freshness and innocence as Bert, while Paul Myers makes Kenneth a genuinely tragic figure who is undermined by his own sensitivity. Jack Cohen rages and roars as Gus, emphasizing his character's irascible personality, and Kevin Kenneally masterfully transforms Tom from a hopeless drunk to a pious prig. Together they all bring out the best in Miller's script.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roger Lewin--Jennifer Girard Studio.

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