Stages of Development

Daryl H. Miller is a Los Angeles-based theater writer

A war had just ended, and the world was struggling to make itself whole again. Millions of lives were changing--forever.

Allan Miller's certainly was.

A 17-year-old Army private first class from Brooklyn, he was among the forces occupying Japan after World War II. Driving supply trucks from a base outside Tokyo, he found himself becoming increasingly homesick and heartsick: Other soldiers ostracized him because he refused to sleep with the local women, who, out of desperation, were being prostituted. The area farmers bowed to him as though he were some sort of conqueror. And the forced obedience of military life was chafing at him.

Then he noticed an ad in Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper, announcing an audition for actors. The Army's Special Services needed performers for the shows it toured to the troops.

Miller had never given a moment's thought to acting, but, somehow, this seemed right. And it was. The other actors felt free to express their fear, their anger, their exuberance--and he found himself enveloped by "a camaraderie of feeling-ness" that he had never before experienced.

Subsequent years found him performing on Broadway and television, teaching acting to a young Barbra Streisand, running a much-admired theater in the San Fernando Valley and becoming one of Los Angeles' most trusted directors.

His current directing project, the Los Angeles premiere of Terrence McNally's "A Perfect Ganesh," opens July 11 at the Odyssey Theatre.

McNally's 1993 play charts a journey toward understanding and renewal, much like the one Miller has been describing on a tranquil spring evening at his Sherman Oaks home. He sits with his back tucked into a corner of an overstuffed couch, his stocking feet stretched out in front of him. At 69, his face is etched with character, his dark hair graying on the sides. He speaks in a quiet, confident, often impassioned voice.

McNally's play bores in on "the secrets we keep from each other," the director says, demonstrating: "Until you can give to others, you cannot be free of your demons. Until you can share your love, your consideration, your admiration, your jealousy, your hate--until you can give all of those things to someone else, without being defensive, without being an enemy--you cannot be clear of the demons. They will always push you around."

The play journeys through India in the company of two middle-aged female friends from the country-club set of Greenwich, Conn. Each has been sensitized by deep loss, the extent of which remains locked inside. Yet cultural and class prejudices lurk even in hearts as acutely tuned as these, as the trip through India reveals.

With a frankly theatrical flourish, McNally--who wrote "Master Class," "Love! Valour! Compassion!" and who won a Tony Award two weeks ago for his "Ragtime" adaptation--uses the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesha to narrate his story. Ganesha, who is considered to be the remover of obstacles, secretly guides the lady travelers, mingling with them in the forms of many of the people they meet along the way.

"These women are, sometimes, as funny as Abbott and Costello," Miller says. "Other times, they are just so pathetic in their obtuseness and their habitualness."

Lois Nettleton, who played Carroll O'Connor's girlfriend on the NBC drama "In the Heat of the Night" and Desiree in the Ahmanson-at-the-Doolittle's "A Little Night Music," portrays the more boisterous of the friends, opposite Louise Sorel, a star of the NBC daytime soap "Days of Our Lives."

Nettleton says that Miller "seems to open up his arms and say, 'I'm here, give me what you have to give.' So you feel very free to just go with it. There's nothing judgmental or restrictive; it's just go 100%."

In 1948, soon after Miller returned from the war, he began attending the New School of Social Research's Dramatic Workshop in New York, run by Erwin Piscator. He then studied acting with Uta Hagen, where classmates included Geraldine Page and Charles Nelson Reilly; and with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio, where such people as James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Paul Newman dropped in from time to time.

In the mid-'50s, Strasberg recommended Miller for a teaching position at the Dramatic Workshop, where Miller had begun his studies. He has been teaching ever since.

In the late '50s, Miller's then-wife, Anita Cooper, was acting in an off-Broadway show, where she met the teenage Barbra Streisand, who was apprenticing backstage. Sensing that the aspiring actress needed some guidance, Cooper invited her home for dinner.

"She was the most ungainly, awkward person I've ever seen try to act," Miller says. "What came out of her mouth had nothing to do with what was happening with her body, or with her feelings." Counterbalancing it, however, was a hunger to learn--"this utter, open, naked desire to know--everything, anything, about acting, about life. It was very, very stirring."

Miller coached Streisand for her Broadway debut in "I Can Get It for You Wholesale," then through auditions and rehearsals of the star-making "Funny Girl."

Meanwhile, Miller had been earning his stripes on the stage. Perseverance and fate landed one of his most treasured jobs, as a replacement in the 1964 off-Broadway American premiere of Athol Fugard's "Blood Knot," a parable about brothers--one white, one black--in apartheid-riven South Africa. After talking his way into an audition, Miller was cast as an understudy and, after only four rehearsals, took over permanently for the injured regular actor, opposite Lou Gossett Jr.

Miller taught acting at several universities, including Yale and New York University. Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver were among his students at Yale in the early '70s. Another student actress there, Laura Zucker, would become the divorced Miller's second wife.

Also at that time, Miller performed in Yale Repertory Theatre's 1972 world premiere of Eric Bentley's "Are You Now or Have You Ever Been," culled from transcripts of the House Committee on Un-American Activities hearings. He had one of the plum parts: dramatist Abe Burrows, who ran questioners in circles as he tried to avoid giving names or details to the committee. Miller then brought the play to Los Angeles for an acclaimed 1975 staging and revivals in 1984 and '95.

On television, Miller had a recurring gig on "Soap" as Katherine Helmond's psychiatrist. On "Archie Bunker's Place," he played a bad brother to Barry Gordon's good one. And on "Knots Landing," he was a real estate broker embroiled in a liaison.

Miller's directing career didn't really take off until he and Zucker--who had moved to Los Angeles in 1974--were running the Back Alley Theatre in Van Nuys.

The Back Alley was a 93-seat theater converted from the back of an old warehouse on Burbank Boulevard, just east of Sepulveda. The couple ran it for a decade, from 1979 to 1989, with Miller as artistic director and Zucker as producer, focusing on material new to L.A.

"We were warned over and over and over: 'Nobody will come to the Valley' " to see theater, Miller says. Zucker, who has joined her husband on the couch, adds: "But we said, 'Well, we live in the Valley, and we would like a theater.' "

The Back Alley became a darling of critics and audiences alike with such shows as Miller's own adaptation of the D.H. Lawrence novella "The Fox," Tom Kempinski's "Duet for One" and early plays by Donald Margulies, including "What's Wrong With This Picture?"

But the economics of running a small theater finally exhausted the couple--and their bank account. Zucker estimates they put an average of $10,000 of their own money into the theater each year.

"Our accountant, for many years, called the Back Alley our hobby," says Zucker, who is now executive director of the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, which presents the annual Summer Nights at the Ford series and issues grants to arts organizations.

In all, the Back Alley staged nearly 40 shows. Miller directed about 15 of them, including the ambitious condensation of 10 Greek tragedies "The Greeks," Caroline Kava's "The Early Girl" and the closing production, Matthew Witten's "The Deal."

In recent years, Miller has found a directing home at the Odyssey, staging David Hare's "A Map of the World" in 1992, Mark Medoff's "Stumps" in 1994, and Tom Murphy's "The Gigli Concert" in 1997, among others.

Whatever Miller does, it all comes back to his fascination with theater's transformative power, first experienced in his GI days and repeatedly savored since.

"The thing that keeps making me want to teach," he says, his voice turning soft with wonder, "is that, every once in a while, somebody turns beautiful right before my eyes."

*

"A PERFECT GANESH," Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles. Dates: Opens July 11. Regular schedule: Wednesdays to Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends Aug. 23. Prices: $18.50-$22.50. Phone: (310) 477-2055.

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