Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave.
When: through Feb. 11
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Until last Saturday night, I thought of Arthur Miller’s 1947 “All My Sons” as a naturalistic drama about self-serving greed versus social responsibility in the immediate wake of World War II. The devastating repercussions of the conflagration play out in a more-or-less typical American family living in a suburb that’s potentially an idyllic refuge from the city.
Director Charles Newell explodes that conception with his brilliantly acted production at Court Theatre. Although the acting remains firmly rooted in reality, he raises the stakes, turning the play into a kind of Greek tragedy, as he intimates in a note on the theater’s web site, or an Old Testament story, as a program article about Miller suggests.
The result is a powerful hyper-realism, starting with the violent thunderstorm that opens the evening, thanks to lighting designer Keith Parham and sound designer Andre Pluess. The storm crackles across John Culbert’s post-apocalyptic scenic design of the Keller family’s backyard and back wall of the house flanked by the neighbors’ with edges that look like a jigsaw puzzle with pieces missing. Then it’s the sunny next morning with patriarch Joe Keller (John Judd) sitting in the yard reading the newspaper amid the branches of an apple tree uprooted by the storm.
That tree, we soon learn, was planted three years earlier in memory of the Keller’s older son, Larry, a pilot who disappeared on Nov, 25, 1943. His body was never found, and his mother, Kate (Kate Collins), fervently clings to the hope that he’s still alive, putting her life on hold and insisting that her husband and younger son, Chris (Timothy Edward Kane), do the same. She’s even asked neighbor Frank (Bradford Ryan Lund) to do Larry’s horoscope, which turns out to support her claim.
This is a problem for Chris, a deeply moral and principled man who has returned from war to his father’s manufacturing business, though he’s suffering from survivor’s guilt having lost most of the men in his company. He’s in love with—and wants to marry—Ann Deever (Heidi Kettenring), who had been Larry’s girlfriend, and knows his mother will object. Ann lives in New York now, and he’s invited her back to break the news.
Chris has known Ann since childhood, when her family lived next door. In fact, her father Steve was Joe Keller’s business partner, and that’s the crux of the looming crisis that will spark the revelation of terrible secrets.
Steve has been in prison for 15 years for selling defective aircraft engine parts that killed 21 pilots. Joe was arrested with him but was exonerated at the trial because he wasn’t at work that day, but Steve always maintained that his orders to cover up the defects came from Joe on the phone, and almost everyone seems to suspect Joe’s guilt to some degree or another, even those who are in denial. Ann and her brother George (Dan Waller) have not been in touch with their father for years, but after visiting him, George arrives and insists that Ann cannot marry Chris, because Joe destroyed the Deevers while becoming wealthy himself.
The crisis comes to a head when Chris confronts his father, who trots out a litany of excuses ranging from economic pressures to the insistence that he didn’t care about the money for himself but did it all for his family. He can’t grasp the wider implications of his actions and even maintains that, unlike Chris, Larry would understand, which later proves to be tragically ironic—and leads him to finally recognize the truth embedded in the meaning of the play’s title.
Stunning central performances from Judd as the blustery Joe, who hides a guilty soul beneath a devil-may-care surface, and Kane as the serious, shy Chris, who just wants to have a life without compromising his principles, make “All My Sons” a must-see. But they get stellar support from Collins as Kate, who at first seems on the edge of madness but actually understands more than she’s willing to let on, and Kettenring as Ann, who know the truth but is almost saintly in her willingness to forgive in order to move forward with Chris. She’s something of an underwritten character, but Kettenring makes her a thoughtful woman anyone would want to marry.
Waller’s brief appearance as the disheveled, distraught George, arousing Joe and Kate’s intimations of disaster, has a profound impact. The neighbors–Dr. Jim Bayliss and his wife, Sue (Karl Hamilton and Johanna McKenzie Miller) on one side in the former Deever house, and Frank and Lydia Lubey (Lund and Abby Pierce) on the other—function something like a Greek chorus, sometimes expressing the feelings of the community, and at other times simply appearing as silent witnesses to crucial moments underscored by ominous music.
I was initially a little skeptical about Newell’s approach, but it works well and gets around a problem inherent in the play. Although few may be willing to admit it, Miller’s dialogue can sound overwrought to our contemporary ears, but in the context of Greek tragedy, it seems just right, as do the archetypal themes.