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Theatre in Review: All My Sons (Roundabout Theatre Company)

Benjamin Walker, Tracy Letts, Anette Bening, Hampton Fluker. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Plays, like people, need to be tending to; aside from the obvious classics, there is an entire (and enormous) subgenre of works from previous centuries that require proper care and feeding if they are to thrive: A good example is All My Sons, now getting an immaculate revival at the Roundabout. It's the play that put Arthur Miller on the map, in 1947, two years before Death of a Salesman would announce itself as a pivotal work of twentieth-century American theatre, and the differences between them can be glaring. Still in thrall to Henrik Ibsen, Miller constructed a clockwork problem drama, presenting an apparently happy, prosperous Midwestern family and, by degrees, revealing the festering wound at its center. The play has all the hallmarks of the ethical detective stories that Ibsen made popular (think of An Enemy of the People, which Miller himself would adapt a few years later), including a first act laden with exposition, supporting characters who arrive at regular intervals with fresh bombshells, and a letter, heretofore unmentioned, that provides the coup de grâce. Miller may have been a young Turk of Broadway, but, in 1947, he was writing like a dramatist from seventy-five years earlier.

And yet, All My Sons has a keen eye for its central family's dysfunctions, in particular the dominating role played by the neurotic, self-lacerating matriarch. The first act has an extraordinarily touching marriage proposal scene, which is unlike anything else in Miller's oeuvre. And, as a whole, the play makes a still-mordant comment on postwar America, a place where, following the initial rush of peacetime triumph, a spiritual amnesia has set in, lest too many skeletons come tumbling out of the closet. And when the terrible truth that haunts the Keller family is finally laid bare, you have to admire the sheer meticulousness with which the playwright has laid the groundwork, ensnaring each of his principals in a moral beartrap from which there is no escape without paying a terrible price.

The wonder of Jack O'Brien's production is how it embraces the creaks in Miller's dramaturgy, making them seem irrelevant to the real business at hand: probing the psychological scar tissue acquired by the members of the Kellers following the wartime death of one son. The curtain rises on the family's backyard, rendered, in Douglas W. Schmidt's gorgeous set design, as a Saturday Evening Post cover come to life. Already, however, there are disturbances in the air. The show begins with a video sequence, by Jeff Sugg, that shows the house under siege during a storm, intercut with footage of a warplane losing altitude. Indeed, a tree has been destroyed, one that was planted in honor of the lost son; adding a discordant note is Kate, the mother, who insists that the tree was a mistake. Such a memorial is unnecessary, she insists. Their son, Larry, is missing, yes, but aren't the presumed dead returning home practically every day? Aren't the newspapers filled with such accounts? A single glance between Joe, Kate's husband, and Chris, their surviving son, is all you need to understand how Kate's harping on this issue leaves them permanently unsettled.

O'Brien orchestrates the rising tensions among the Kellers with the skill of a master conductor. Chris has brought back to the household Ann, Larry's former fiancée, whom he has slowly, patiently courted by mail. Now he intends to marry her, if she will have him -- even if such an act will force Kate into a brutal awakening about Larry's death. There are ugly complications: Ann's father, Steve, was Joe's business partner, and when the company was found to have shipped defective airplane parts to the government, resulting in the deaths of twenty-one pilots, Steve took the fall - rightfully, as far as any of them know. Over the course of several hours, however, a darker realization comes to light involving wartime profiteering, its implications touching even on Larry's fate, which is revealed to be something other than a hero's death.

O'Brien has cast the production with care, finding actors who can transform Miller's sometimes-wooden dialogue into the cadence of natural speech, also skirting any hint of melodrama. Tracy Letts' Joe is an apparently easygoing sort, but note the coolly appraising smile with which he regards Chris after an exchange that is too frank for his taste, saying "I don't understand you, do I?" He captures Joe's pronounced passive-aggressive qualities, at first refusing to endorse Chris' marital plans, then denying any knowledge of them to Kate. And when his deep and irrevocable corruption is exposed, the wounded animal howl with which defends himself to his son -- "You're a boy, what could I do! I'm in business, a man is in business!" -- is painful to witness. He has an ideal mate in Annette Bening's Kate: Neat as a pin, every hair in place, bustling about the house, barking out orders in a voice as flat as a prairie, yet an undeniable tension behind all the activity, a fear that if she stops and thinks - even for a second -- her hopes will come crashing down. There's nothing more effective in the production than the little moan of distress that she emits with when presented with the incontrovertible truth; it's the sound of faith fading away, never to return.

Benjamin Walker has a solid handle on Chris' postwar restlessness, a kind of survivor guilt mixed with a lack of a higher purpose beyond turning a profit ("I felt wrong to be alive, to open the bank-book, to drive the new car, to see the new refrigerator") and the unchecked rage with which he confronts his father -- simultaneously realizing that, all along, he knew something was terribly wrong -- is as scalding as any physical attack. He also plays together incisively with Francesca Carpanini as Ann; the scene in which these two young people, long separated by circumstance and family honor, slowly, haltingly come together, admitting their long-held passion, is delicately rendered. It's a crucial component in the overall dramatic pattern, creating an emotional investment for the audience that makes the tragedy that follows many times more wrenching, and I've never seen it rendered with more feeling.

The standouts in the fine supporting cast include Hampton Fluker as Ann's brother, who comes bearing accusations that will destroy the Kellers, yet remains deeply ambivalent about his mission; note the telling moment when Joe takes him in an embrace that he only slowly, awkwardly returns. Michael Hayden, who, twenty years ago, played Chris at the Roundabout, is first-rate as a local doctor who has grown bitter at his money-grubbing existence, as is Chinasa Ogbuagu, as his wife, who wishes Ann would marry Chris and take him away forever, lest his idealism poison her spouse with ideas about devoting himself to medical research. ("It's bad when a man always sees the bars in front of him," she tells an in a moment of candor. "Jim thinks he's in jail all the time.")

The rest of the design -- including the lovely sunset and moonlight wash supplied by Natasha Katz, the period-perfect costumes (including seamed stockings for Ann), and John Gromada's sound design, a subtle symphony of ambient effects, including birdsong, trains, crickets, whippoorwills, barking dogs, and planes -- is exactly what a first-class revival of this play requires.

And, by the time the moral bill comes due for the Kellers, with its awful implications for the future, you may find you have forgotten any creaks or hiccups in Miller's dramatic machinery. In 1947, it took guts to pierce the mood of postwar euphoria with this dark portrait of capitalism and its corruptions. All My Sons continues to be notable as a vigorous warmup for the knockout punch of Death of a Salesman; this production shows that, as a mordant comment on the cost of the American Dream, it can stand solidly on its own. --David Barbour


(1 May 2019)

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