My first time at the South Camden Theatre Company, Waterfront South Theatre, was practically my duty as an American Irish to witness the decline and fall of an artist. I came in impressed with the new theater and left impressed with the fine work of Tom Flannery’s and Rodger Jacobs’ GO IRISH: THE PURGATORY DIARIES OF JASON MILLER. The title pretty much tells the story. Unfortunately on this warm Friday night there were not many in the audience to be rewarded as I was by this intellectual exploration of a man’s mind as he unravels how he came to be in Purgatory when he already came from Hell.
How did he go wrong? Did the former altar boy from Scranton, PA sin? Or, was he just a victim of New York’s Broadway theater world and Hollywood’s warped sense of acting and treatment of his noble art? And, what about the other celebrities gone astray? We’ve seen several in the news lately. None other than Charlie Sheen and Mel Gibson come to mind, but there are others. Those two are two of my favorite actors, but it’s hard to see them in the same light after they have fallen victim. It could easily have been either one ranting on the stage instead of Jason Miller. Or, George C. Scott, Robert Mitchum, Marilyn Monroe in years past. Probably quite a few more we never heard about seduced and crushed by the fickle public that loves stars and artists too hard for a short time. Hard to put a time limit on love that way. With celebrity, it may last a month or years. Or, it may trickle in from time to time. But when everyone stops loving you after everyone loved you before…
Jason Miller didn’t like to wear socks. Neither did Einstein. Did that make them crazy? Probably not. But, other geniuses? You know what they say about madness and genius… The play makes you think. I wonder if those reclusive few who survived long out the public eye are the really sane ones, staying hidden away from the forces of evil that reign supreme in the kingdom called celebrity. Or, maybe they were already lost by then, and this was their version if not in reality, the “drunken” stupor.
Jason Miller, the Pulitzer Prize-Winning playwright for THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON became lost in the madness that comes to some smitten early with celebrity. He became addicted to it, and unable to match prior brilliance, fell victim to its tragic clutches. It is the sad tale how celebrity can bring down the greatests of greats to bless us with their gifts, how it tears a man down as well as his art, his family, and ultimately his very life.
The role of Miller was played with a special zeal by Robert Hughes, a man who has to have had a personal relationship with the man himself. Even if he did miss a few his light zones, he found them soon enough, and employed the tools great actors use to make that moment his own. His gravely voice was wonderful as he moved in and out of lucidity, at times talking directly to us in the audience, at other times, talking to his parents, Jackie Gleason (his wife’s father), and even Eugene O’Neill, a fellow Irish playwright with whom he compared himself unsuccessfully. He maintained a touch, just a touch of Irish accent to make the connection to Miller uncanny.
One-person shows have to demonstrate enormous singular talent to make it or break it. This one does make it, but it is not a show for everyone. It is not a riveting drama filled with action because it is so intellectual and emotionally draining, but that because it is also so poignantly expressed. I enjoyed this play because it does that job of making us think, but it is a flood of information and emotion you have to sort out later.
The play builds and falls pretty much like celebritydom itself. I think that’s on purpose, but it doesn’t make it an easy play to watch. You come to expect a pattern in theater, especially in drama, but sometimes, theatre breaks the pattern. This is one of those times. It’s hard to watch someone in constant pain. Well, I guess that’s Purgatory, if not Hell. If there are climaxes in the play they come with the awareness that our character still has no answer but to call on God. So nothing is resolved. And, I guess for some, that is the only way to end it.
GO IRISH: THE PURGATORY DIARIES OF JASON MILLER
by Tom Flannery and Rodger Jacobs
Directed by Suzanne Ford
March 18-20, 2011
South Camden Theatre Company
Waterfront South Theatre
400 Jasper Street
Camden, NJ 08104