No need for Prozac

The American Clock

Bonnie Bane demonstrates some of that indomitable human spirit in <i>The American Clock</i>.

Bonnie Bane demonstrates some of that indomitable human spirit in The American Clock.

Rated 4.0

The American Clock is a big play for the playwright who specializes in small moments. Author Arthur Miller usually showcases the smaller stories to illustrate major social issues. For example, in Death of a Salesman, Miller focuses on one person, one family, over a couple of days to show the disillusionment of the American worker. But in The American Clock, his 1980 play about the Great Depression, Miller thinks large in terms of cast, stories and time span.

The story shadows the well-to-do Baum family. It starts out wealthy, gets stung by the stock-market bust, slides right through the middle class and ends up on the suffering side of the Great Depression. Interspersed along the way are the stories of countless people and situations during a devastating time in our nation’s history.

River Stage takes on the considerable task of mounting this major production. It includes a 22-member cast, countless scene and costume changes, and intermingling stories—all connected by vaudeville song-and-dance numbers. It’s an impressive, ambitious, handsome and entertaining launch of River Stage’s 10th season.

The play is based on Studs Terkel’s best-selling Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression, and it paints several portraits of the amazing resiliency of spirit and survival that characterized the Depression. This is both the play’s strength and its weakness. It sometimes seems as if Miller wrote a simple script and then complicated matters by sprinkling Terkel’s tales throughout. The main Baum saga gets watered down by so many other characters, scenes and stories.

However, the family’s plight of hopelessness, despair and stubbornness—as well as its indomitable human spirit—is still the centerpiece. The Miller magic of small moments reigns, with the heartbreaking piano playing of Mother Baum, the chatter of a card game, and the auctioning of a family farm.

The cast is impressive, with so many wonderful moments captured by so many strong performances. There isn’t a stumble in the whole production. The numerous actors are anchored by the skill of leads Andrew Hutchinson, Tim Sapunor, Jan Ahders, Blair Leatherwood, Spencer Tregilgas and Claire Lipschultz.

Director Frank Condon keeps the story flowing, the song-and-dance numbers entertaining, the acting fresh and the plot meaningful. Special kudos to set designer Kale Braden and musical director Steven Coughran. However, the backstage award clearly belongs to the incredible work of costume designer Nancy Pipkin. She created more than 130 authentic period costumes, each more handsome than the next. She deserves a bow onstage, front and center.