It’s ironic that the playwright who gave us “All My Sons” is now the subject of a play about the real-life son whom he kept secret. Bernard Weinraub’s “Fall,” whose world premiere the Huntington Theatre Company is presenting at the Boston Center for the Arts’ Calderwood Pavilion, tells the story of Arthur Miller and his son Daniel, who was born with Down syndrome. The play is by turns gut-wrenching and heartwarming, but it’s always fair-minded, and it gets a magnificent production from the Huntington.
Miller’s second marriage, to Marilyn Monroe, ended in 1961. In 1962 he married Austrian photojournalist Inge Morath; they had a daughter, Rebecca, and then, in 1966, Daniel. Medical opinion at the time was that Down syndrome children belonged in an institution, and that’s where Daniel was sent. Miller didn’t mention the boy in his 1987 memoir, “Timebends”; the New York Times didn’t mention him in Miller’s 2005 obituary. Daniel’s existence was rarely noted until Vanity Fair “uncovered” him in 2007, calling him “Arthur Miller’s Missing Act.” That article prompted Weinraub, a former New York Times reporter, to investigate. “Fall” is the product of his research.
It would have been easy to castigate Miller, who wrote so perceptively about fathers and sons, for turning his back on his own son. But “Fall” is sympathetic to Arthur and Inge. She initially wants to keep Daniel at home; Arthur is worried about the impact that caring for a Down syndrome child will have on their careers, particularly his, which is already stuttering. (By this point, most of his acclaimed work is well behind him: “All My Sons,” “Death of a Salesman,” “The Crucible,” and “A View from the Bridge.”) The couple’s decision to accept the advice of Inge’s obstetrician, Dr. Paula Wise, is a difficult one that we’re invited to understand and even accept.
What’s harder to understand, or accept, is Arthur’s failure to visit Daniel or acknowledge his son. He seems paralyzed by guilt, as if he thought his sins had been visited on Daniel. The tragedy here, as Weinraub shows, is that Arthur has the chance to rise above the fathers in his plays, and he can’t do it.
“Fall” crams four decades, from Daniel’s birth to Arthur’s death, into 130 minutes (that includes a 15-minute intermission), which means the action is stretched thin. We don’t see much of Daniel; his presence might have given the play a tougher stance. We also never see, and barely hear of, his sister Rebecca. This is largely the story of Arthur and Inge, and Daniel’s effect on their marriage. It’s a sweet and often funny story, with tormented outbursts, and toward the end Arthur begins to accept his son. In a kind of epilogue, the characters face the audience and we learn that Arthur Miller left his four children (he had two from his first marriage) equal shares of their inheritance, and that Daniel Miller now lives with a foster family in Connecticut, where he’s employed and enjoying life.
Brandon McNeel’s nifty set design for the Huntington represents some venues, like the hospital where Daniel is born, with basic elements that slide on and off stage. A scrim serves as a projection screen to indicate time (via newspaper clippings) and place (the Hotel Chelsea, Central Park, Washington, D.C.). When the scrim rises, we get the more elaborate set of the Millers’ home in Roxbury, Conn., with overstuffed library shelves and what looks like a working kitchen.
The cast, moreover, would do credit to any Miller play. Josh Stamberg is a laid-back, conflicted Arthur who seems bemused when life deviates from the script he’s written. He shuts down when Inge suggests raising Daniel at home or taking their son out of the institution; he spends the second half of “Fall” engaging in antiwar activities, overseeing revivals of his early successes, and arguing with his producer, Robert Whitehead, rather than trying to write. The energy of Joanne Kelly’s supportive but clear-headed Inge is a nice complement; speaking in heavily accented English (she sounds like an Austrian Audrey Hepburn), Inge provides the emotion, and the objectivity, that Arthur lacks. Joanna Glushak’s Dr. Wise seems sterile at first but quickly warms to become Inge’s friend and confidante. John Hickok’s Robert is both grounded and generous.
As for Daniel, he opens and closes “Fall,” telling us he knows all the Beatles songs and reminding us that his name is not “Down syndrome” but Daniel Miller. It’s a limited role, but the performance by Nolan James Tierce, a Newton-based actor with Down syndrome, is anything but limited.
Play by Bernard Weinraub. Directed by Peter DuBois. Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company. At Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, through June 16. Tickets: $25-$85, 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.orgJeffrey Gantz can be reached at email@example.com.