Theatre Mirror Reviews - "All My Sons"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"


entire contents Copyright 2006 Erik Sherman

"All My Sons"

Reviewed by Erik Sherman

“All My Sons”

By Arthur Miller
Director: Robert Freedman

Set Designer: Catherine King
Lighting Designer: Rachel Roy
Costume Designer: Barbara Kasper
Stage Manager: Mike Shedd
Props: Sondra Radosh
Master Carpenter: Steve Woodard

Joe Keller............................................... Nick Simms
Kate Keller............................................ Jarice Hanson
Chris Keller............................................ Shaun Barry
Ann Deever............................................ Mary Annarella
George Deever....................................... Nick de Ruiter
Dr. Jim Bayliss........................................ Phil Hayes
Sue Bayliss............................................. Patricia E. Brown
Frank Lubey........................................... Joe Chimi
Lydia Lubey........................................... Emily Murphy
Bert........................................................ Henry Weis

What is going on with New England actors these days? Times past, an actor dropping out of a play was rare and happened only under unavoidable duress. But in the last two months I had heard of at least three productions that lost a lead shortly before opening.

Apparently change has come not only to times, but also adages: things now come in fours. As my wife and I settled in to watch the Arena Civic Theater (ACT, get it?) production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, director Robert Freedman announced that the central part of Chris Keller would be played not by the actor listed in the program, but someone else. And I had actually heard back in February that the production had already lost an actor, bringing to total to at least two.

There is some irony to this chain of events. At the center of Miller’s play is the loss of young men – though to the Second World War and, the pivotal occurrence, through the casual indifference of businessmen. Although “all corporate people are bad” might seem a trite observation, it’s helpful to remember that this was Miller’s first big play. It hit New York early in 1947 – a full two years before Death of a Salesman – at the hands of director Elia Kazan and co-producer Harold Clurman, both veterans of the politically focused Group Theatre. Miller, in his early 30s when the play opened, had come of age in the previous decade during both the Great Depression and the labor union movement, the latter garnering a reactionary backlash of literal violence from many companies.

But like the best of political drama, All My Sons quickly expands beyond the author’s time to more fundamental and disturbing questions of psychology and human character. During the war, two partners were arrested for selling defective aircraft parts that resulted in the crashing of 21 planes and the death of those young men. One partner, Joe Keller, is eventually found not guilty while the other goes to jail. Freed, Keller rebuilds the business, becomes wealthy, and loses his son Larry who goes missing in action. So Keller takes his other son, Chris, who has returned from the war and brings him into the business and makes a life. His wife, Kate, however, keeps thinking that one day Larry will show up, that his girlfriend Ann Deever, daughter of Keller’s old partner, is also waiting.

But Ann, who moved with her mother as well as her brother, George, to New York to avoid the shame of being the family of a “murderer,” has come back at Chris’s request. They want to marry, and Kate cannot bear the thought of admitting that Larry is gone forever. Eventually George arrives . The brother is angry, having finally visited his father for the first time since returning from the war and hearing the man personally blame the elder Keller for first ordering the shipment of the bad parts then cleverly hanging the blame on Deever when the truth came out.

Of course Deever had to hang, as the name echoes back to the Rudyard Kipling poem “Danny Deever,” in which the title character is being hanged for shooting a sleeping fellow soldier. Miller’s Steve Deever figuratively hangs for shipping parts for use by unknowing, or “sleeping,” soldiers. Deever’s reputation is always ruined: even his son, George, refers to him as a frightened and little man.

However, during the action, Kipling’s admonition,

They are hangin' Danny Deever, you must mark 'im to 'is place,
For 'e shot a comrade sleepin' -- you must look 'im in the face; has yet to happen. No one in the play has yet to face Deever, except George. And no one other than George has really faced the truth and themselves. (Notice that the name Keller is remarkably close to “Killer.”)

That sense of inevitability, of the truth waiting to come out, echoes classic dramas spanning from Sophocles to Shakespeare. Even though this isn’t Miller’s best work, All My Sons has a nobility and strength that travel far beyond a political message as they march to an ending that is factually predictable but emotionally suspenseful.

For all the casting bad luck that ACT had, there was a silver lining: Shaun Barry as Chris Keller. Although he was so new to the production that he had to work script-in-hand, the local actor’s significant talent still offered a performance with some nuance, somehow making the book he handled fade perception.

Although this sort of last minute change is disruptive as well as hurtful to the entire cast, crew, and audience, ACT pull together to still offer an entirely credible and enjoyable evening, though occasionally the staging was stilted and too posed for a play and production that was otherwise grounded in realism. Nick Simms was usually believable as Joe Keller, although I found myself wishing that at points he would become more introspective and reserved, to underscore through contrast both the character’s glad-handed backstabbing and the anguish. Jarice Hanson as Kate Keller played well the line between welcoming hostess and a woman desperately trying to hold together, in more than one way, the illusion of her life. Mary Annarella, playing Ann Deever, showed a good range of reaction, but was physically stiff and given at times to stage posing, indicating emotion rather than really showing it. Nick de Ruitter, popular both as an actor in local productions and as a DJ on a local radio station, was good as Ann’s brother George who, as the angry lawyer, picks up on the clue that starts unraveling the tangle of lies. Some other good supporting performances came from Phil Hayes as Dr. Jim Bayliss, who now lives in what was the Deever house, and Emily Murphy, who brought a sense of truth to Lydia Lubey, another next door neighbor.

But given the cast disruptions, any shortcomings are minor. Indeed, Robert Freedman undoubtedly found his hands full just getting something to the stage, so the level that the production was able to achieve is testimonial to the skill and hard work of all. Kudos to set designer Catherine King and master carpenter Steve Woodard for erecting what was doubtlessly a challenging two-story house front and to lighting designer Rachel Roy, whose work emphasized the moods on stage without calling attention to itself.

"All My Sons" (21 - 30 April)
ARENA CIVIC THEATER
The Shea Theater, 71 Avenue A, TURNER'S FALLS MA
1 (413)863-2281

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