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A CurtainUp Review
All My Sons
By Elyse Sommer
Since All My Sons was written during an era that valued realistic staging and wasn't averse to impassioned dialogue about big themes. But then neither were the early Greek dramatists and Henrik Ibsen who influenced all of Miller's work.
Even though playwrights and audiences nowadays lean more towards less conventionally structured plays, Miller's status as one of this and the last century's great playwrights have seen All My Sons (as well as plays like Death of a Salesman regularly produced.
That said, Sons has been done and done, including at community theaters, so that another Broadway production' risks concerns about it being too dated to warrant the high cost of tickets. All I can say to that is that wish I could tell you that it was dated, and irrelevant. Instead Miller's cautionary tale about about the American Dream interpreted as an open sesame to allow making money to trump responsibility for the common man and woman is more powerful and relevant than ever.
Businessman Joe Keller's shipping bad cylinders to be used in planes flown by World War II pilots certainly has plenty of counterparts: Bankers doing things counter to their obligation to their customers; .soldiers fighting even longer battle abroad with insufficiently protective gear; and even more recently, civilians flying (an dying) in Boeing's new and not properly tested planes.
So, yes, All My Sons is indeed a melodrama mounted on a soapbox. But the eloquence with which its characters put forth the themes propelling all of Miller's plays retain their power and relevance, especially when stirring solidly staged and superbly acted as the Roundabout's current revival is. The scenario in case you're seeing All My Sons again or for the first time or need a refresher:
The play unfolds in Kate and Joe Keller's backyard three years after the war. Joe and his partner's trial for the shipment that caused the death of 21 pilots because of those faulty cylinders is past history — at least for Joe who was exonerated. But somehow it's still a dark cloud over the Kellers' lives, as is the grief that their own pilot, son Larry, went missing in action. Only Kate clings to the hope that he's still alive so is hardly sanguine when their older son Chris invites Larry's former girl friend to visit and she accepts his proposal. Ann's being the daughter of Joe's still incarcerated partner ratchets up tensions and explodes with the arrival of her brother George to stop the engagement with his declaration that Joe made their father his scapegoat.
The play moves from a slow and quiet start and builds gradually and devastatingly into the final big reveal about the dark undercurrents beneath the homey scene.What makes this seemingly uneventful scenario still such an emotional powerhouse is the playwright's way of loading even small talk with bullets that don't seem like bullets until they're finally discharged with a blow-to-the heart bang — and that the actors director Jack O'Brien has enlisted for this production are superb. That's not just the primary trio, but the minor characters who turn out not to be so minor in bringing the secrets, lies and self-delusions to the play's unforgettable climax.
Tracy Letts, himself a playwright as well as very fine actor, lets us see Joe Keller who, though the play's villain, isn't really a villain just a man seduced into letting compromising his value system. Letts shows us Joe's humanity in how he interacts with his son, his wife and even the child Bert (Alexander Beale and Monte Greene alternating). All of his warm, seemingly normal behavior makes his ultimate downfall at the end of the play doubly and triply devastating.
As Kate, Annette Bening poignantly captures the complex emotions of a woman in deep retreat from the truth and actually her husband's partner-villain. No wonder that it's to her to whom her son addresses his disillusion and sums up the play's theme: "Once and for all you must know that there's a universe of people outside, and unless you know that, you threw away your son because that's why he died."
Benjamin Walker manages to make the too good to be true, idealistic Chris convincing. There's one scene with Ann Deever (an also believable performance by Francesca Carpanini) in which he even shows us that even he is not immune to accepting money as the essence of the American Dream. ("I'm gonna make a fortune for you Annie!").
Michael Hayden was Chris in the Roundabout's 50th anniversary production is now the Keller's neighbor Dr. Bayliss, who like Chris yearns for a more fulfilling life but is trapped by the real life aspects of the "Dream" by his pragmatic wife Sue (Chinasa Ogbuagu).
Jenni Barber and Nehal Joshi as Lydia and Frank Lubey play a minor and yet meaningful roles.
The all important late arrival in the Kellers' back yard is Hampton Fluker as a wonderfully nuanced George Deever. He is full of rage but is somehow drawn back into the Kellers' orbit.
Mr. O'Brien has opted to let the tragedy unfold in a beautifully detailed realistic set. However, the prologue that usually has Kate wandering around the backyard at night is done as foreshadowing, full of thunder and lightening video, courtesy of Jeff Sugg and John Gromada. The Greek style symbolism of that storm and the apple tree it destroys is a bit overcooked but it works. Adding to the true to the era realism are Jane Greenwood's costumes.
Another very fine Production currently in London will be broadcast live under the NTLive programk. To read Lizzie Loveridge's reviewgo here
To close, an interesting coda: While the 1947 debut production one the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Play, the political right attacked it as a smear on the American business community and the work of a communist. The play was also denied a license to be performed in the occupied area of Europe by the Civil Affairs Division of the American Military
For more about Arthur Miller and links to his plays we've reviewed, see our Miller chapter of our Playwright Album