'All My Sons' - Still Awesome After All These Years
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by Nancy Grossman
All My Sons
Scenic Design by Scott Bradley, Costume Design by Elizabeth Hope Clancy, Lighting Design by Christopher Akerlind, Original Music and Sound Design by John Gromada, Projection Design by Maya Ciarrocchi, Production Stage Manager Carola Morrone, Stage Manager Leslie Sears
CAST (in order of appearance): Dr. Jim Bayliss, Ken Cheeseman; Joe Keller, Will Lyman; Frank Lubey, Owen Doyle; Sue Bayliss, Dee Nelson; Lydia Lubey, Stephanie DiMaggio; Chris Keller, Lee Aaron Rosen; Bert, Andrew Cekala/Spencer Evett (at select performances); Kate Keller, Karen MacDonald; Ann Deever, Diane Davis; George Deever, Michael Tisdale
How do you define the American Dream? Do you see it as something simple, like a chicken in every pot, or the basic rights guaranteed by the Constitution? Is it owning a home, raising a family, and having a good job to provide a decent living? Or is it the vision of hitting it big in some way and obtaining riches beyond your wildest imagination? Has the American Dream undergone change since 1947 when Arthur Miller wrote his classic play All My Sons? While the imaginings may be somewhat more grandiose, I'd say the dream remains inclusive of all of the above and continues to drive the lives of American citizens, as well as to draw immigrants to our shores from many nations. The seekers of the dream have a plethora of interesting stories and the one that Miller tells is both tragic and compelling.
A drama that is at once both personal and political, All My Sons focuses on a day in the life of the Keller family which will leave them inexorably altered. Set in August, 1947, in a Midwestern town, Miller's Tony Award-winning Best Play (the first to receive that distinction) tackles the themes of family relationships, personal responsibility, and the quest for the American Dream. During the war, Joe Keller's company sold faulty airplane parts to the government, resulting in the deaths of twenty-one airmen and the incarceration of his partner Steve Deever. Although Joe was exonerated, he struggles to overcome his shame in the community and puts on a brave face most of the time. His facade extends to his acceptance of the circumstances of his fighter-pilot son who went missing in action, much to the chagrin of wife Kate who still waits for Larry to come home after three years. So sure is she of his return that she goes ballistic when younger son Chris announces his intention to marry Ann Deever, Steve's daughter and "Larry's girl" before he went overseas. Chris also served in the war and is desperate to move forward with his life, resenting that he is held back by his brother's ghost.
Ann's homecoming to the old neighborhood sparks the dismantling of the fragile connections between the Kellers. When her brother George arrives, fresh from an enlightening visit with their jailed father, he wants to wrest her away and sever all ties with them. His anger and disclosures rip open the old wounds, forcing Kate and Joe to drop their denial, and Chris to view his father through a different lens. This moment in the second act marks a turning point for each of the characters, where their individual flaws erupt into full-blown internal conflicts crying out for resolution. After the watershed, Miller allows them to act like real people, looking out for their own self-interests and, in some cases, having to choose between their professEd Morality and a more realistic or selfish point of view.
Karen MacDonald reaches unbelievable depths in her portrayal of Kate Keller who, at times, seems deranged, yet is truly the wise one who understands exactly what is at stake if truth were to be snatched from the bonds of her denial. She makes us feel the pain and strength of this matriarch who bends, but refuses to buckle in the face of overwhelming evidence of a parent's worst nightmare. Kate is the heart and soul of this damaged family and serves as a fulcrum on which no amount of force can budge her from her stance. Her journey is often difficult to watch, but MacDonald compels us to give her our unwavering attention.
Will Lyman presents a fully-realized Joe Keller, a man who seems to effortlessly jettison his sins of the past in order to embrace its unexpected rewards. His languid demeanor belies a deeper simmering stew of unresolved angst and guilt, exacerbated by his confusion regarding his roles as family man and capitalistic entrepreneur. As he strips away Joe's hardened layers of pretense and bares his core, Lyman teaches a master class in acting from the heart. In his early scenes with Lee Aaron Rosen (Chris), there is easy father-son camaraderie and Rosen conveys the younger man's genuine love and respect for his dad. He plays Chris with appropriate earnestness, and is sweetly tender and coy proclaiming his love for Ann. While he is convincingly dismayed when the unraveling begins, there is an upper limit to his range of all-out anger so that he seems to be straining when he hits his peak. Rosen surely gives it his all, as evidenced by how physically and emotionally spent he appears to be at the curtain call, but I'd like more volume or more throat-searing rage when the final invective is launched.
Michael Tisdale achieves eye-bulging rage as George, but he builds up to it from a spring-loaded, highly controlled starting point. You sit there and wait for him to pop, knowing that he can't be contained simply by watching his eyes. He does a lot with his ominous character in a short time on stage. Diane Davis displays a wide range as Ann, from her soft, lovey-dovey scenes with Chris, to the conflicted emotions she feels when Chris and George quarrel, to showing steely resolve with Kate. I believed most of it, but Davis exhibits one expression, regardless of the sentiment, making her tough to read. The rest of the cast provides solid support. Ken Cheeseman is the reliable family friend and voice of reason as Dr. Jim Bayliss, and Dee Nelson makes his no-nonsense wife Sue a stern taskmistress. Owen Doyle and Stephanie DiMaggio are good neighbors who provide a bit of cheer, and Andrew Cekala (at this performance) is genuine in his debut as young Bert.
Director David Esbjornson worked with Miller on his final two premiere productions, so his effort here is informed by personal knowledge of the playwright and his views on morality. In addition to eliciting great performances from the ensemble, he expresses his vision for the play and augments their work through the artistry of his design team. Scott Bradley's design of the backyard of the Keller's Midwest home features a browning lawn with scattered furniture, a nascent apple tree, a vine-covered fence, and a border of poplar trees. Stage right, we are allowed a peek into a slice of the house, its second-story windows with Venetian blinds, and its screened-in porch. Looming over it all is a big sky where nightmarish war action is hauntingly projected, and Christopher Akerlind's lighting design changes the scenes and the moods from stormy night, to morning, to twilight, to two a.m. The 1940's era is further evoked by Elizabeth Hope Clancy's costumes, with astute attention to details like seamed stockings for the women, and hats and wide-legged trousers for the men.
One of the most disturbing facts about All My Sons is that it is based on an actual war-time event, and it also stirs up thoughts about profiteering by large corporations in other, more recent wars. Thematically, the juxtaposition of the self-sacrifice required by those who served and the financial killings made by some who supplied tools for the effort raises the question of why they fought the war. Was it to maintain the status quo, or was it for the greater good? And aren't these the very same questions being asked today as another generation of young people will be forever changed by the wars they are fighting? We may ask more questions now in the post-Watergate, post-911 world, but don't necessarily get more satisfactory answers. Throughout his career, until the end of his life, Miller continued to write about these issues and seek the answers. To his credit, he wrote plays that make you think, but wrote them well enough that you don't mind. In All My Sons, he tells an important, dramatic story, and the Huntington production gives it its due.