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Playing the classics, in any artistic discipline, is not a guaranteed slam-dunk, and can actually be a great risk. Familiarity and expectations can create quite a burden; but when the enterprise succeeds, it reminds us again what great art can be. This was the case with PlayMakers Repertory Company’s powerful new production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. Because of the recent inclement weather, the official January 30th opening-night performance was canceled, so the Sunday matinee served as stand-in for what is one of the finest two hours of dramatic theater that you will experience.
This was Miller’s first hit and, along with Death of a Salesman, his most enduring success. He had invested so much in its critical and popular appeal that had it failed, Miller vowed to “find some other line of work.” All My Sons is a bottomless well of emotions, universal and timeless issues of personal responsibility, guilt and redemption, and the human capacity for harmful self-deception as a means of psychological survival.
Meet the Kellers, a family living the American dream, who sort of survived the big one (World War II), or at least they pretend that they have. Joe and Kate’s oldest son, Larry, was killed in the war; but three-and-a-half years later, Kate refuses to accept the finality of that and insists there is still a chance he will return. Their youngest son, Chris, has returned from the war and is being groomed to take over his father’s business, a company that had been revealed as shipping out defective airplane engines, resulting in the deaths of 21 American pilots. Was it Joe who was responsible for the decision to release those parts or was it his business partner and neighbor Steve Deever, who took the blame and is serving time in prison? Chris now wants to marry Deever’s daughter Annie, who was Larry’s girl at the time he went off to fight. The plotlines get even more thick and interconnected; but Miller presents it logically and clearly, and the lives of 10 characters unfold with a paradoxical mixture of clarity, mystery, and pathos.
The main stage of the Paul Green Theatre is a three-sided room with equal seating in each part, so there is no real “front.” This can be an asset or a liability, since you need to maintain somewhat democratic staging for all sections of the audience. Director Davis McCallum handled this brilliantly, and every word from every actor was clearly heard even when the actor’s back was to your side of the theater. The set was a nicely done depiction of the backyard of an upper-middle-class home, although the story and acting were so excellent across-the-board that it could have been presented on a bare stage and had the same dramatic effect.
Joe, the tragic “hero,” was played with great understanding of the part by Paul O’Brien. The play, in part, is the examination of his slow descent from self-exoneration for an unforgivable act to self-destruction as he came to realize that the consequences of his decision hit much closer to home than he ever imagined. Joe’s wife Kate, played by Ellen McLaughlin, despite her seemingly unreasonable belief that her son may come home after being missing in action for three years, is more attuned to the curves and depths of this tragedy than anyone else. Christian Conn, portraying the returned son Chris, is magnificent as he evolves from the embarrassed tongue-tied suitor of Annie to the implacable accuser of his father.
The cast of 10 is the largest that I have seen at a PlayMakers production, so it is not possible to discuss or even list everyone. But all of the supporting roles were played with pitch-perfect attention to their respective relationships to the story and main characters, and there was not even close to a weak link anywhere. There are some relatively light moments, and Frank the astrologer can conceivably be thought of as comic relief. But once the facades crumble in the last scene, we are as emotionally spent as can be created artificially.
This is not an uplifting story, nor is it an especially favorable look at what our species is capable of. It is an unrelenting and powerful examination of how even the best of us can mangle “best intentions” into deadly results. Issues in this play, like war profiteering, are occurring as this is being read. PlayMakers and all of its actors, directors, coaches, designers, and technicians have hit a grand slam with this classic of the American theater. The sign of great theater is how long it stays with you. I am still living with these characters, questioning their actions and trying to resolve issues and absolve mortal sins. Go see this production — its impact lasts far longer than the two hours time upon the stage.
All My Sons will run through February 14th at the Paul Green Theatre. See our theatre calendar.