JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE LAST YANKEE at Summerhall, Edinburgh, and DESCENT at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for The Scotsman, 19.10.15.
The Last Yankee 4 stars ****
Descent 4 stars ****
THIS IS THE MONTH of the Scottish Mental Health Arts And Film Festival, and also of Luminate, Scotland’s festival of creative ageing; and here are two plays that not only reflect powerfully on those themes, but also soar to terrific heights of drama, over a short hour or so.
Rapture Theatre’s The Last Yankee – now on a long Scotland-wide tour – marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Arthur Miller by reviving one of his less-performed late plays, first seen in 1993, when the playwright was in his late Seventies. Set in a public mental health hospital somewhere near New York, the play opens as two men – dedicated carpenter and father-of-seven Leroy Hamilton, and successful businessman John Frick – arrive to visit their wives, both suffering from severe depression.
Miller’s passionate and subtle 75-minute play offers no easy answers to the profound questions it raises about what mental illness is, and how it can best be treated. Patricia Hamilton is full of half-suppressed fury at a husband who is descended from one of America’s founding fathers, but refuses to aspire to the money and status his family takes for granted; childless Karen Frick clearly suffers from having a husband who treats her with contempt. And Michael Emans’s well-cast company – David Tarkenter and Pauline Turner as the Hamiltons, Stewart Porter and Jane McCarry as the Fricks – whip up a tremendous storm of political, social and marital tension between them; as they flesh out both Miller’s half-suggestion that the women are made ill by the obvious pressures of capitalism and male chauvinism, and his acknowledgment that sometimes mental health problems go beyond politics, into a massive sense of loss and disappointment that almost defies explanation.
Linda Duncan McLaughlin’s Descent, by contrast, deals with what is obviously a physical and mental disease, and one that has exploded into public debate over the last decade, after centuries of silence. Of all the plays that have recently dealt with the theme of dementia, though, I can’t recall seeing one so straightforwardly powerful and heartbreaking – or so magnificently acted – as this 50-minute Play, Pie and Pint drama, at the Traverse from tomorrow. Bob is a successful Glasgow architect, and he and his wife Cathy are a jolly, hard-working couple in their late fifties, when something starts to go wrong; and McLaughlin pulls no punches in exploring the desperate early stages of dementia, as both Bob and Cathy struggle to acknowledge what is happening to him, until the situation reaches an agonising crisis.
It’s a harrowing subject, but Barrie Hunter and Wendy Seager (with Fiona MacNeil as daughter Nicola) handle it superbly, perfectly capturing both the relationship Bob and Cathy had, and the sheer loss his illness entails. “There are no rules for mourning someone who is still there,” says Cathy, towards the end; and the many audience members who have travelled the same road can only weep their agreement.
The Last Yankee this week at Bowhill, Motherwell, Eastwood, Musselburgh, and Stirling, and on tour until 7 November. Descent at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, tomorrow until Saturday.