"How can one ever be sure of one's good faith?" asks the impossibly wise German archeologist who's just shown her tormented American friend the site of a former concentration camp. "God, it's wonderful to hear you say that," he replies, grasping at this dubious absolution. "All my women have been so goddamned sure!"
And so it goes in Arthur Miller's navel-gazing 1964 meditation, After the Fall. Women and conscience—or, more precisely, sex and guilt—animate this thinly veiled autobiographical work, a play that still feels so nakedly revealing, even (or especially) at its most evasive and self-justifying, that we're torn between awe and disgust at Miller's shamelessness. If this fine, well-acted new production under director Stephen Sachs doesn't make the case for the play's greatness, it does provide a consistently fascinating, maddening document of its time—a time when the Old Left was still wistfully obsessing on the moral quandaries of the Holocaust and the McCarthy era while a new social revolution was brewing under the radar.
As Quentin, the lawyer protagonist in whose "mind" the play takes place, Morlan Higgins is good, almost too good: He doesn't stand outside Quentin, exactly, but he's too truthful an actor to beg for our sympathy, no matter how much the play asks him to. Higgins has dark, despairing eyes and a bitter, broken smile; he gives Miller's soul-searching, fourth-wall-breaking soliloquies self-flagellating power, and he doesn't shy away from the material's whinier excesses; indeed, Higgins' abject willingness to whimper and flail make Quentin's quiet moments of resolution, or his splurges of anger, register with all the more dramatic force.
The women have a rougher time earning their place in this tilted moral universe; it is at their expense, after all, that Quentin must learn his painful lessons about the aloneness of each human being. But Jacqueline Schultz, as usual, comes through brilliantly, with a piercing portrait of a put-upon first wife who won't be pushed aside; her fierce face-offs with a hooded, defensive Quentin almost throw the play out of balance. The play's infamous Marilyn Monroe material strikes a different kind of imbalance, as a hoary Hollywood morality tale takes centerstage: The complicated thinking man is flattered into bed with the innocent whore, whose unexamined simplicity ends up corroding rather than clarifying. This stuff plays all too much like the tawdry backstager it apparently was; as the Marilyn proxy, Maggie, a rivetingly poised Tracy Middendorf manages to make the character's steep downward arc seem almost credible, even as she subtly accents the unwitting camp of this schematic sudser.
Less knowing is the performance of Colleen Quinn as the sage German on whose untroubled soul Quentin's fretful projections at last come to rest. Standing out in smaller roles are Malachi Throne as Quentin's scrappy mercantile father, Mimi Cozzens as his exacting harridan of a mother, and Lenny Citrano as Mickey, the Elia Kazan stand-in whose argument for naming names to the House Un-American Activities Committee injects a rare note of genuine ambiguity into the proceedings. These, and the production's design elements—John Patrick's fragmented scrim set, lit in interlocking layers by Kathi O'Donohue, and Shon LeBlanc's to-the-point costumes—support without distracting from the play's solipsistic enterprise. Indeed, Sachs' fine, minimum-fuss production is proof that taking this flawed, dated work seriously rather than sneeringly may be the best way to see it for what it is: an epic manqué of mid-century survivor's guilt that finally moves us more with earnest effort than with execution.
"After the Fall," presented by and at the Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Hollywood. Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. Feb. 15-Mar. 31. $24. (323) 663-1525.