Sept. 28 2010 12:00 AM

MSU's 'American Clock' is an often striking look at the 1930s

As our current recession seems to be winding down, the Michigan State University Department of Theatre has wound up "The American Clock" by Arthur Miller. As Miller’s "Death of a Salesman" is an intense close-up of a troubled man, "Clock" is an expansive wide shot of a troubled nation struggling through the Great Depression. However, director Tony Caselli (artistic director of Williamston Theatre) proves that with the right music, even a disjointed series of vignettes can be turned into a cohesive anthem.
The tune of Caselli’s anthem is George and Ira Gershwin's "They Can’t Take That Away From Me," a song whose chorus perfectly suits the show’s themes of loss and changing national identity. Interspersed with other songs of the period such as "I’ve Got Rhythm" and original music by local composer Nick Strong, music serves as the clock itself, transitioning the show forward while commenting on nearly every scene. Caselli makes his enormous, omnipresent cast do the singing and playing, a choice that works dramatically, although not always harmoniously. The cast may not always be on pitch but they are always on cue, keeping the show ticking smoothly through the years.
Given the show’s fractured narrative, the show comes down to memorable scenes and the actors who make them distinct. Some of the most distinguished and developed out of the cast of 27 are the Baum family, played by Jeff Tremblay, Emily Sutton-Smith and Spencer Perrenoud. All three actors take advantage of their prominent stage time, giving their characters a natural progression that perfectly fits their roles and their relationships to each other.
As the son, Lee, Tremblay grows from a naive boy to a worldly, young man; Sutton-Smith plays the composed mother, Rose, who begins to fray when her piano is taken away; and Perrenoud inhabits the steadfast father who must swallow his pride.
Other strong performances come from Wes Haskell as one of the show’s narrators, Arthur A. Robertson; Brandon Piper, in three separate roles; and Ian Cooley and Corie Randolph as two young lovers, Sidney and Doris. Brought together by a haphazard arrangement, Sidney and Doris discuss the potential of seeing other people. The utter sweetness of their jealousy and charming resolution is a testament to both of these fine developing actors.
The most powerfully haunting moment of the production comes after the Depression shows no signs of slowing, and a young man decides to commit suicide by standing in front of a subway train. In this moment, the entire cast becomes the gasping crowd of onlookers and the sounds of the oncoming train before a single spotlight freezes the moment of impact, searing the downward gaze of the young man into your brain.
Caselli’s thrust staging is considerate of its audience on three sides as he keeps his actors in constant motion, whether they are talking to the audience or each other. Framing each step is G. Max Maxin IV’s rich, clockwork-inspired set colored in bronze and mahogany. The painted textures continue morphing throughout the show, thanks to the subtle mood lighting designed by Matt Reynolds.
As a script, "The American Clock" feels like a chronological diorama with stock representations. However, Caselli, pulling the most from his actors, has made this production resonate.

"The American Clock"
Michigan State University Arena Theatre
Contnues at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 29 and Thursday, Sept. 30; 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 1 and Saturday, Oct. 2; and 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 3
$12 general admission; $10 seniors and MSU staff and faculty; $8 students
(800) WHARTON or click here to buy online