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The Martha's Vineyard Times

The Martha's Vineyard Times is a weekly publication.
July 14 - July 20, 2005 Edition
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Theater: Speaking freely
July 14, 2005

By Anna Marie D'Addarie

Marcus (Joel Rooks) enjoys the comforts of his home and the privileges he is afforded by the state. Photo by Ralph Stewart
Arthur Miller, eulogized as the greatest American playwright, was never shy when it came to mixing politics and art on the stage. “The Archbishop’s Ceiling,” the current offering at the Vineyard Playhouse is Miller’s play about writers in Eastern Europe before the fall of Communism. The mix of characters is as rich as a bottle of red wine, leaving a complex taste on the palate long after it’s gone.

Written in the early 1970’s, the play examines freedom of speech and the creative process. Miller began the play after an evening spent with a group of writers in Prague as the secret police hovered nearby. Recently, the play has enjoyed several reincarnations in regional theaters and in New York City. Its theme of creating art in an oppressive society makes a strong statement in the United States in 2005.

Miller asks the question, “Is true art possible without struggle?” What happens to an artist who sells out to the power brokers is shown through the character Marcus. A one-time dissident writer and leader of the literary underground, he now enjoys certain freedoms in exchange for his true voice, now silenced. Marcus’s home, a former archbishop’s residence, is the setting for the play. It was once a place of great opulence. The home is probably bugged with listening devices, most likely hidden in the ceiling. No such device has ever been found, but each character believes it is possible and acts accordingly. Under such circumstances, creation is not possible; ironically, great works of art loom overhead.

The next generation of artist is represented by Sigmund, a new voice in his country who refuses to be silenced. When his latest manuscript is confiscated, he is given the opportunity to leave the country. He refuses, saying it is the struggle that helps him create. He describes what his life would be like in the United States; just another immigrant ordering fast food with an accent. The banality of an exiled existence and his need to have his voice heard in its own language are some of his reasons to stay. Instead of receiving encouragement from Marcus to continue the fight, Sigmund is being pushed to leave the country by Marcus who is probably acting as an agent for the government.

The United States is represented by a novelist named Adrian who seems to say all the wrong things for the right reasons. He shows up to visit Marcus but is really interested in renewing his affair with Maya, a woman who has been the lover of all three of the central characters. Adrian symbolizes all the freedoms we enjoy, but he needs to visit this repressed society to find inspiration. Maya asks him many times, “Why are you here?” Each time he answers her differently, but none of the answers ring true. Maya knows why he has come and is trying to get him to realize it too. Adrian is a writer in a free society, yet he doesn’t write anything of significance.

The most enigmatic character is Irina, a young Danish woman Marcus brings back from his recent trip to London. She does not speak any language the others understand, and understands very little of what is being said. Irina is always present and involved in every scene, but can’t communicate. Miller uses this character to represent a silent Europe; close by, but true communication isn’t possible.

Director Joann Green Breuer has done a good job with Miller’s play. The pace seems right and her attention to detail is wonderful. Ms. Breuer moves her actors adeptly around the set. When confrontation is called for, the actors block each other’s way. Full-back to the audience is a very powerful position and Ms. Breuer’s cast uses it well. In moments of accord, the cast relaxes in chairs. In a play with weighty philosophical themes, sensitive direction is more important than in a murder mystery. In the mystery the clues are important and both actor and director know it. In a play such as “The Archbishop’s Ceiling,” the director must decide what is important, guide the cast, and thus get the message to the audience. Ms. Breuer does that well.

The American writer played by Lawrence E. Bull, makes himself at home on the set. He lounges, legs akimbo, on delicate chairs, takes off his purposely noisy shoes to lie down, holds the saucer of his tea cup like a Frisbee, and generally takes up too much space. By contrast, Maya and Marcus moves silently around the stage even before they both change into their even more silent, beautiful slippers. Carol London’s Maya is ocean-deep. She knows everything and out of necessity says very little. Ms. London portrays Maya as a survivor, and yet we pity her for what she has become.

Joel Rooks plays Marcus as a man thrust into an oppressed society, not by his choosing. He fought against it in his younger days, but now likes his comfort. Mr. Rooks gives a strong performance. Marcus may want Sigmund to leave the country so Sigmund won’t have to look back on his life with the same regrets that Marcus lives with.

Craig Alan Edwards plays Sigmund with passion. He tries to get his fellow writers to understand why he can’t leave; that seeking asylum would be suicide. The American doesn’t have the capacity to understand, and Marcus understands too well. Mr. Edwards performance is very strong. The audience may not immediately understand why he wants to stay, indeed has to stay, in his country. Mr. Edwards has a true bead on his character, and he is a pleasure to watch.

The set by Stephen M. Zablotny is a good space with once-beautiful furniture and draperies, now old and in disrepair. Renaissance paintings by Caravaggio press down from the ceiling onto the actors below as if an angry God was looking down from heaven.

The cast and crew are up to the challenge of Miller’s play. The full opening night audience appreciated all the hard work and many rose quickly to their feet to reward them with a standing ovation. The beauty of this play is how it makes you examine your own politics and comfort level. How is art created? What does it reflect? How am I responsible for my society? To begin asking yourself these questions, and perhaps to find some answers, see the Vineyard Playhouse production of “The Archbishop’s Ceiling.”

“The Archbishop’s Ceiling” runs Tuesday through Saturday, through July 23. For performance times and prices, call 508-696-6300 or visit
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