Tragedy in art & life

Thoughts on a Reno Little Theater actor’s last performance

Tyler Stewart Smith and Matthew Mahan co-starred in Arthur Miller’s <i>All My Sons</i>.

Tyler Stewart Smith and Matthew Mahan co-starred in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons.

On one level, Arthur Miller’s All My Sons is about a family dealing with a tragedy. After the death of a son, the remaining family members must piece back their lives any way they can. For the members of Reno Little Theater, who performed All My Sons last weekend, the play must now carry a new significance, because they have lost a son of their own.

Matthew Mahan, who starred in RLT’s recent production and was the financial secretary for the theater company’s board of directors, died Sunday evening in a motorcycle accident. Reno saw his final performance Sunday afternoon.

Though I never met Mahan, I had seen him perform before in Reno Little Theater’s Master Class. I remember being impressed with his operatic singing in that play, but his part was rather small and my attention was focused elsewhere. In All My Sons, that statement couldn’t be further from the truth.

Mahan’s played Chris, the idealistic son of factory owner Joe Keller (played by Leo McBride). As the play begins, Chris has recently returned from war and has been changed by the experience, watching so many of his fellow soldiers die fighting for each other. Despite this darkness, Chris remains an honest and thoroughly likable character.

Chris wants to marry Anne (Tyler Stewart Smith), the ex-fiancee of his brother Larry. Larry never returned from the war, and Chris presumes his brother to be dead. The boys’ father also believes his son is dead, but mother Kate (Chris Miller) clings with a fierce, almost frightening tenacity to the hope that Larry will return.

In the background of this tense family scene is a scandal. Years before, Joe and his business partner—Anne’s father—were convicted of selling defective airplane parts to the government, resulting in the deaths of 21 pilots. Though Joe was acquitted on appeal, Anne’s father remains in prison and steadily points an accusing finger at Joe. Anne’s brother George (Ricco Fajardo), recently convinced of his father’s innocence, tries to take his sister away from the Kellers, the family he believes ruined his own.

As I watched this drama unfold, my attention became more and more focused on Mahan, who portrayed his character’s range of emotions with an artistry that often transcended the artifice of acting and just felt real. He didn’t simply play Chris; he became Chris, and the transformation was honest, sensitive and compelling.

One scene in particular, in which Anne and Chris kiss for the first time, was as touching and real as anything I’ve seen on stage. Overcome with emotion, Chris runs around the stage, his hands covering his mouth in delight and surprise, crying out, “I kissed you! I kissed you!”

Mahan’s performance here was so childlike in its wonder and joy that I felt a surge of emotion and a vain wish for Chris’ happiness.

But in Arthur Miller’s world, tragedy is the rule of the day, and Mahan’s interpretation of Chris’ grief and disillusionment was just as powerful as his interpretation of joy. It is Kate’s final words that I think of now when I reflect on the last performance of a man with so much talent, taken from us all so young: "Don’t take it on yourself. Forget now. Live."