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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
All My Sons
By Elyse Sommer
Fiddler launched the Main Stage season with a bang, All My Sons, now following in its praiseworthy footsteps, is a tense and exciting production. It's sensitively directed by Boyd with a splendid cast to deal with the secrets and lies shadowing the on the surface American as apple pie Keller family and their neighbors in an anywhere USA town in 1947.
Few plays can match the eloquence of the characters and its fine craftsmanship. Sure, it's a melodrama, but few contemporary playwrights have done melodrama more grippingly than Arthur Miller. Joe Keller is one of Miller's great "common men," a businessman who succumbs to the siren song of the American Dream of financial success even if it means shipping cracked cylinder heads to the Air Force during World War II. By beginning Joe's story not at the moment of his extreme moral failure but years after the war, the drama grows into an epic tragedy that reveals the wide-ranging consequences of that act — on Joe, his partner and neighbor, and on their families.
All My Sons still grips and convinces because no scene is ever loaded with an undischarged bullet (Joe Keller, expressing his certainty that his son won't insist on his accepting responsibility for not stopping the shipment of those flawed cylinders "I'm his father and he's my son, and if there's something bigger than that I'll put a bullet in my head"). As this fine production amply illustrates, the play also very much a vehicle for fine acting and new interpretations.
Jeff McCarthy, best known to Barrington Stage audiences for his musical roles (Follies, Mack and Mabel, Sweeney Todd)) proves that he has fine all-around acting chops. McCarthy's Joe Keller charms and cajoles his neighbors. He reveals his scrappy bravado in his interaction with a young neighbor (a delightful young Andrew Gillman making his professional debut) and his fixation on making money in his comments on the classified newspaper ads he likes to peruse. Though he's not physically small like the movie version's Edward G. Robinson, he becomes a figuratively small man crumbling under the weight of the dramatic confrontation with his son.
Josh Clayton Clayton reminded me a lot of Michael Hayden, both in looks and his powerful portrayal of Chirs Keller. Unlike his brother Larry, Chris survived the war and made a pragmatic choice to work for his father 's once again thriving business even though his idealistic nature yearns for something more. The pressure to make money to determin life choices is a subtext also detailed through the various neighbors who, wander in and out of the Keller yard (all these secondary characters are excellent, with Andy Nogasky making an especially strong impression as the neighbor who would rather do research but, like Chris, opts for the better paying life of a doctor).
To bring the simmering tensions in the Keller household to a boil there's the arrival of Ann Deever (Rebecca Brooksher), the daughter of Joe's partner who, as the one who signed off on that deadly shipment to the air force is in jail (Joe was incarcerated briefly but exonerated). Having grown up with the Keller boys, she became Larry's fiancee and has now been invited by Chris who hopes that seeing Ann, whom she loved, will help his mother Kate (Liz Mackay), to abandon her obviously futile belief that Larry is still missing rather than dead. Kate is not easily swayed and to add another stumbling block to the marriage, Ann's brother George (Matthew Carlson) shows up with his own reasons for preventing the nuptials.
Brooksher's Ann is a self-confident young woman who's not afraid to fight for her happiness. That means standing up to Kate and dealing with her brother's rage at what he's just discovered about his father. But there's nothing one-note about Ann as evident when she touchingly conveys the loneliness that has made her respond to Chris. Carlson in his limited stage time manages to segue between Georg's violent rage and his inability to resist the pull of Kate's seductive fussing over him.
Lizbeth Mackay, an actor who's done outstanding work on and off-Broadway, doesn't disappoint here. As Kate she poignantly captures the complex emotions of a woman in deep retreat from the truth. It would not be amiss to call her the co-villain of this tragedy. No wonder that it's to her that her son addresses his loss of optimism and sums up th play's theme: "Once and for all you must know that there's a universe of people outside, and you're responsible to it."
While this and Miller's other best plays were written during the period dubbed as kitchen sink playwriting for their realistic sets and true-to the period costumes, they have often inspired directors to present them with less naturalistic stagecraft. Robert Falls' 1999 revival of Death of a Salesman was of a piece with the expressionistic dream scenes and the turntable set was a 2008 production. Earlier this year Mike Nichols revived Salesman with its original realistic staging intact. Happily, Julianne Boyd has also opted to rely on strong performances to show that a melodrama mounted on a soapbox by Arthur Miller still works. She's also smartly opted to let those melodramatic scenes play out within David M. Barber's warmly realistic setting and with the actors dressed by Jennifer Moeller as if they'd stepped out of the pages of a 1947 issue of Good Housekeeping.
To sum up, this All My Sons is a drama of a particular era. Too bad its greed is good and responsibility for the other guy isn't dated. We don't have to look far for more recent examples of fighting men killed because their own countrymen sent them to war in insufficiently protective vests, and unsafe vehicles. . .and bankers more dedicated to enriching themselves than fulfilling their responsibilities to that universe of other people of which they are a part.
For more about Arthur Miller and his work see our Arthur Miller Backgrounder. A timeline of major All My Sons production is at the end of the production notes below.
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