Very occasionally, one of our local companies produces a perfect evening of theater. The first indication that Actors Theatre of Phoenix had weighed in with a contender came when the curtain rose on Jeff Thomson's breathtaking set design for The Archbishop's Ceiling. The first-night audience burst into excited applause and stayed to cheer the gifted cast that brought Arthur Miller's complex play to life at the Herberger.
The Archbishop's Ceiling debuted, in a very different version, in 1977 at the Kennedy Center. After extensive rewrites, an ancillary character -- a literary critic named Martin -- was excised from the final script, and the ending changed, but the spirit of Miller's original story of freedom and fealty remains. It's set in an unnamed European capital, where the line between literature and politics has all but vanished. Sigmund, a celebrated novelist whose books are banned in his own country, has angered the government with his dogmatic writing. The police may have confiscated his latest manuscript, and he must now choose between fleeing his homeland and standing trial for treason. On hand to help seal his fate are his would-be friends: Maya, a radio personality and Sigmund's former lover; Marcus, a writer jealous of Sigmund's acclaim, who may be working with the police to snare treasonous writers; and Adrian, an oily American author looking for inspiration among his beleaguered pals.
These complicated characters inhabit a world in which the evils of government can't be accurately portrayed in print. Miller's title refers to the possibility that Marcus' home, originally built for the archbishop, may conceal a recording device planted there by local authorities. The story goes that Marcus has allowed his home to be bugged, and that he and Maya lure unsuspecting dissident writers there, then get them to discuss their work. With Big Brother listening in, every conversation is a potential display of loyal citizenship, and every line of dialogue crackles with double meaning, creating a kind of play-within-a-play structure.
The cross-talk of Miller's bright chatter is sometimes hard to follow, its shifting motifs difficult to chart. In a story about freedom and political necessity, his people are distracted by sexual desire, artistic vanity, professional jealousy and intimate loyalty. That Matthew Wiener has untangled these tangents is a tribute to his skill as a director; that he has assembled such a remarkable cast to read them is a pleasure.
Debra K. Stevens gives, as ever, a stunning performance -- one that prompted my companion to ask, "What's she doing in Phoenix?" Among other things, she's proving that she can play, as the saying goes, everything from giants to children. Last seen as a chicken in a Childsplay production, Stevens here plays Maya, a sympathetic sexpot with a secret. It's a roomy role that allows her to display her talent for both drama and comedy -- pleading with her ex-lover for mercy one moment, she tosses off a laugh line the next.
Stevens has plenty of competition. I can never review Joël Maurice without mentioning his pitch-perfect, booming voice, built for the stage and so startling from such a young fellow. As the American author, Maurice tempers Adrian's arrogance with wide-eyed alarm, his sometimes-stuffy speeches with well-timed comic bits. No less brilliant is Kim Bennett, who provides Marcus with a perfect balance of disdain and warmth for his doomed friend. But each of these performances fades into the shadows when Mark De Michele is emoting. His Sigmund conveys, in stance and in speech, the complexities of a revered but pathetic Resistance writer.
I hesitate to refer to The Archbishop's Ceiling as timely, to strain to connect it with some headline-grabbing story now in the news. The truth is, Miller's story -- concerned as it is with moral choices -- would be topical any time. The real news is that this complex play has been so gracefully translated, and so stunningly performed.
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