“How do you erase a child?”
Bernard Weinraub, a former reporter for The New York Times, is sitting in the green room at the Huntington Theatre Company, asking this question again and again and again.
A father of three who once chronicled Hollywood for the Times, Weinraub is pondering this dilemma because it is at the heart of his new play, “Fall,” making its world premiere at the Huntington. It begins previews Friday at the Calderwood Pavilion and runs through June 16.
His new work is about the famed playwright Arthur Miller. At his best, Miller was known as a moralist who wrote about conflicts between fathers and sons. Plays like “Death of a Salesman” and “All My Sons.” He was famously married to Marilyn Monroe and famously refused to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He defended a man he felt was coerced into confessing to a murder.
But he also had a secret.
In 1966, Miller’s third wife, the photographer Inge Morath, gave birth to a boy with Down syndrome. On the advice of doctors, Miller and Morath sent their son Daniel to a Connecticut institution called the Southbury Training School, which advocates for the disabled would later describe as a hellhole with appalling conditions. And Miller, who doted on his daughter Rebecca (now married to Irish actor Daniel Day-Lewis), expunged his son from his life. He never visited, never mentioned him, even in his autobiography “Timebends: A Life.” Morath visited their son periodically, but Daniel Miller was not named in any obituary, with the exception of the one in the Los Angeles Times, when Arthur Miller died in 2005. He did not attend his father’s memorial service at the Majestic Theatre in New York, where fellow playwrights Edward Albee and Tony Kushner eulogized Miller as a champion of morality. Daniel Miller wasn’t invited.
Weinraub first learned of this secret in 2007, when he read a meticulously reported article about it in Vanity Fair. It haunted him. He thought attention must be paid. So he wrote “Fall.” He interviewed social workers and people he knows who have children with disabilities, but he took dramatic license with the story. “It’s a work of the imagination based on real events,’’ he says.
Weinraub, who worked as a foreign correspondent before covering the movie business, says he has always been fascinated with theater and has written two previous plays, “The Accomplices” (2007) and “Above the Fold” (2014).
“Miller’s favorite expression was, ‘My plays are about the birds coming home to roost,’ ” Weinraub says. “What did he write about? He wrote about fathers and sons betraying each other and paying a price. If he had been a comedy writer, this wouldn’t be a play.” A pause. And then an echo. “How do you erase a child?”
Weinraub says that as a father himself, it is incomprehensible to him how this could have happened. But he is not out to demonize Miller, he says. He is just telling a sad story.
Daniel Miller grew up to be known for his innate kindness. He is the guy who will raise a hand when someone needs any kind of help, according to social service workers who know him. After being released from Southbury, he was eventually taken in by a couple in Bristol, Conn., where he lives now. And his biological father did the right thing at the end of his life and included him in his will, so now his son wants for nothing and enjoys a great life, according to Richard Godbout, who was the program supervisor for a supported-living program that Daniel participated in during the 1990s. Godbout no longer works directly with Daniel, but he sees him occasionally and says he is thriving.
Godbout recalls that the famous father showed up once at an annual progress review. “Arthur was astounded by what he was hearing,” he says. “I think he thought that he would never have imagined this for Danny. He was proud of his son and how successful he had become. He is well-loved, has a job, pays taxes.”
Miller was a complicated person, who peaked early with “Death of a Salesman” and whose writing career took a nosedive during his years with Monroe. Weinraub senses that the playwright had regrets about his son. “Artists can be lousy fathers,” he says. “Picasso was probably a lousy father. This is the story of a man whose genius was writing about families, about fathers and sons, and how we pay for what we have wrought. He loved talking about how you have to live with the right regrets. He had a lot of regrets.”
The play opens and closes with an actor who plays Daniel Miller. Nolan James Tierce, 27 and a self-described actor with Down syndrome, relishes the role. He says he is very similar to Daniel Miller in many ways. “We both did Special Olympics and became advocates for people with disabilities,” he says. Tierce first took up acting at Brookline High School and continued working in the theater at Massachusetts Bay Community College. His role model is Lauren Potter, the actress with Down syndrome acclaimed for her role as a cheerleader on the television series “Glee.”
‘What did he write about? He wrote about fathers and sons betraying each other and paying a price. . . . He didn’t see Daniel as Daniel. He saw him as Down syndrome.’
Tierce says about 60 or 70 of his friends will be coming to the show, and he hopes that it raises awareness that many people with disabilities grow up to be successful adults. Unlike Daniel Miller, he was raised at home in a nurturing family and continues to live with his parents. But he also understands that Miller and Morath were a product of their times, when many parents were not only encouraged, but implored, to institutionalize their children. “My cousin was institutionalized, so I relate to that,” he says.
He says he has found a “second family” at the Huntington and that his relationship with “Fall” director and Huntington artistic director Peter DuBois is “like working with a giant teddy bear.” This is obvious during a rehearsal, when Josh Stamberg, the actor playing Arthur Miller, whispers a joke and kisses him on the head.
Tierce has read Miller’s work as well. “He was a powerful writer, but not a great dad,” he says.
And that is what intrigued Weinraub when he set out to write the play, which he is revising daily during rehearsals. Miller, who never talked about his son, eventually left Daniel and his three other children equal shares of his millions.
“This is a play about shame, not just Arthur Miller’s shame, but Inge Morath’s shame too,” Weinraub says. “He didn’t see Daniel as Daniel. He saw him as Down syndrome. But in the end, he was able to see Daniel as Daniel.”
Produced by the Huntington Theatre Company. Presented in association with Todd Black, Steve Tisch, and Escape Artists. At the Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, May 18-June 16. Tickets: From $25, 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.orgPatti Hartigan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.