The Clock strikes 25

In its biggest show of the 2007–2008 season, the Pittsburgh Repertory Theatre is performing Arthur Miller’s The American Clock, a vaudeville-style play set during the Great Depression. The show opened last Thursday and runs through March 2, and is also a celebration of the the company’s 25th anniversary.

Miller is best known for his works Death of a Salesman and The Crucible, both of which closely follow a small group of people. The American Clock is a departure from this style that Miller tackled late in his career. The play features glimpses into the lives of many characters while combining elements of song and dance into the performance. This style is especially appropriate for The American Clock, in part because of the play’s setting, the Great Depression, which was an era when vaudeville was popular. Additionally, the play was based on Studs Terkel’s Hard Times, an oral history which lends itself to a style that encompasses large numbers of characters.

Although The American Clock portrays a broad array of characters, the story is ostensibly centered around the Baum family, an upper-class New York family that loses almost everything in the Depression. Miller uses the Baums to show a variety of poignant moments. One example is an exchange between the father Moe (professor Doug Mertz) and his son Lee (student Björn Ahlstedt), when the former can barely look his son in the eye as he asks to borrow a quarter to take the subway to work. Another memorable moment is when Rose (professor Elena Alexandratos), Moe’s wife, refuses to leave her piano bench even after the debt collectors come to take her piano away; as the instrument is rolled off of the stage, Rose is left sitting awkwardly on the bench, mourning the loss of her last prized possession.

The smaller characters’ vignettes were less impressive. For one thing, the text of the play seemed at times stuck in its original form as an oral history — characters ranted about poverty, hope, and belief in a style that didn’t seem appropriate outside of a Terkel anthology. Also, the music was for the most part tiresome and poorly executed. It seemed that every good actor couldn’t sing (and vice versa), and the 1920s-style tunes (sparse piano, lazy vocals) oversaturated the stage with historical context — imagine Hair with more tie-dye or Grease with extra poodle skirts.

Still, the essence of The American Clock should be accessible for most audience members, particularly college students. Written shortly after the Vietnam War, the play covers some familiar themes, including discontent with the government and economic distress. The scenes with Lee, who attends and graduates college during the play, were especially relatable; we see Lee and his friends reluctant to accept their diplomas, unhappy to enter a world where it will be difficult to find a job or afford a place to live.

“I’ve liked the play for quite a long time, but it was chosen now specifically because ... the crutch of the script is dealing with people’s loss in belief in their country,” said director Robert C.T. Steele, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

“There are a lot of moments, lines, and images in the show that people seem to connect with,” he said. “It may not be Arthur Miller’s best play, but I think it can still be evocative, especially to a college audience.”

In producing the play, Pitt Rep made several changes to the script, including truncating the ending and customizing the music. The play’s actual ending includes a montage of scenes relating to Vietnam and other issues from the time when Miller was writing it. In removing this section, Steele succeeded in keeping the play focused on the Great Depression.
“In reading reviews of past productions, all of them talked about the ending as either confusing or too little, too late,” Steele said.

Pitt Rep also changed some of the play’s music, for better or worse. According to Steele, the script often called for a song with the option of substituting one like it, offering some flexibility. Though the effect of the added music was not without its flaws, The American Clock is only one of the plays that Pitt had added music to this season, including last fall’s The Recruiting Officer and the upcoming Cymbeline, by Shakespeare.

“I don’t know that it would be a trend,” Steele said, “but it’s very exciting to really custom fit music [for a play].”

One interesting aspect of Pitt Rep plays is many involve both students and professors, technically known as teaching artists. Though this may seem unusual at many university programs, it’s the norm at Pitt, where many believe the interaction between students and professionals helps the former improve.

“It’s specifically how the program at the University of Pittsburgh is,” Steele said. “I think people rise up to a higher level naturally by being in that sort of situation.”