Theatre Review by Howard Miller - April 22, 2019
All My Sons by Arthur Miller. Directed by Jack OBrien. Set design by Douglas W. Schmidt. Costume design by Jane Greenwood. Lighting design by Natasha Katz. Sound design by John Gromada. Video and projection design by Jeff Sugg. Hair and wig design by Tom Watson. Original Music by Bob James. Voice coach Kate Wilson. Fight director Steve Rankin. Cast: Annette Bening, Tracy Letts, Benjamin Walker, Francesca Carpanini, Hampton Fluker, Michael Hayden, Jenni Barber, Alexander Bello, Monte Greene, Nehal Joshi, and Chinasa Ogbuagu.
While the production does not entirely avoid veering into melodrama and speechifying towards the play's explosive ending, there is a generally naturalistic feel to the unfolding of the plot, thanks to the performances by a tight-knit cast and Jack O'Brien's carefully measured direction that allow things to unwind steadily under their own steam, as questions of guilt and responsibility fuel a tension that swells like a yeasty dough until it can no longer be contained.
Douglas W. Schmidt's set design and Jane Greenwood's costumes plunk us down immediately into the midwestern town where the Keller family and their neighbors are nestled into their picture book two-story homes among the foliage, wisteria, and inconvenient truths. The focus is on the Kellers, Joe (Tracy Letts) and his wife Kate (Annette Bening), both in their 60s, and their son Chris (Benjamin Walker). Joe, a successful businessman looking forward to retiring and turning over the keys to Chris, holds court in their back yard as neighbors stop by to say howdy and sip a glass of grape juice on the hot summer day.
It all seems pretty bucolic and humdrum for the first 20 minutes or so, what with the chitchat about the weather and other mundane business. But it isn't long before the secrets that have haunted this family begin to leak out. It has been two years since World War II came to an end. Enough time has passed so that the heady days of celebration, homecomings, and renewal are starting to fade, and there has been plenty of time for untreated psychological wounds to fester. Life in the Keller household has been on hold ever since Chris's brother Larry was reported missing-in-action after the plane he was piloting disappeared. With no final determination, his mother Kate is clinging to the belief that he will return to them alive. For her, this is an absolute imperative, and so, when "Larry's girl" Ann (Francesca Carpanini) shows up and it looks like she and Chris are becoming involved with each other, Kate will have none of it.
While the play is 70 years old, there are enough plot twists so that, if you are unfamiliar where they lie, you won't want them spoiled. Suffice it to say that Kate's obsession is far more complicated than her unwillingness to let go, just as Joe and Chris each has his own reasons for wanting to move on.
For his part, Mr. Letts's Joe appears for a long time to be an easygoing fellow, whose biggest goal is to maintain a semblance of normalcy in his household. He is the kind of man who would describe himself as a hard-working provider for his family, a good husband and father. In this self-portrait, he has managed to quash any sense of responsibility for a huge and deadly mistake he made under duress (and his inherent sense of self-serving profiteering) during the war. Truthfully, if he hadn't placed the blame on his business partner, we might be inclined to be more sympathetic, as apparently the neighbors do. This is especially true of Michael Hayden as a doctor who is wrestling with his own dilemma, to go into medical research as he claims he would like to do or to make more money by taking care of the psychosomatic maladies of his regular slate of patients. Like many men in his situation, including Joe, he sticks to the latter path and blames his choice on his need to support his family.
The major burden of Joe's wartime malfeasance, for which he was legally exonerated after serving a short term in prison, lies like a stone in his gut and like an even bigger rock in Kate's heart. But it is very much Chris's problem as well. Mr. Walker presents us with someone who is burdened with his own sense of responsibility, in this case for the deaths of the men in the company he commanded during the war. There is nothing to suggest he was at fault, but he suffers from survivor's guilt, which comes out gradually over the course of the play. "I came home," he tells Ann, and "the whole thing to them was like a kind of bus accident. I went to work with Dad, and that rat-race again."
Joe, Kate, and Chris are themselves like a bus accident waiting to happen, until everything comes to a head when Ann's brother, George (Hampton Fluker) shows up in high dudgeon. He lights the fuse that sets things in motion for the explosive moments that end the play.
All told, this fine production demonstrates with great clarity that All My Sons holds up to this day, a remarkable work that was Arthur Miller's first breakthrough success two years ahead of Death of a Salesman. Admittedly, there are times when the dialog falls into diatribe about the dehumanizing effects of unbridled capitalism, where the quest for financial gains nearly negates culpability. Yet the director and the trio of actors at front and center do a remarkable job of keeping it real, as does Francesca Carpanini as Ann, who ultimately if reluctantly is the one to tear the self-deluding blindfold from Joe's eyes. Maybe because we have been exposed to so many similar situations, such as Iran Contra, Haliburton, stock market shenanigans, and more recently, Boeing, that things seem to come together much more realistically than they might otherwise have. There are none so blind, Miller seems to say, as those who will not see.