We’re seeing a lot of plays this year that echo our current economic turmoil or our interminable ventures in the Middle East. Gatz and the upcoming production Paradise Lost at the A.R.T and now, at the Huntington through Feb. 7, Arthur Miller’s classic All My Sons. All My Sons might be set around a war that history remembers as noble and the ethics of a business that produces something (here, airplane cylinder heads), rather than one that only moves money around, but it isn’t much of a stretch to see ourselves in Miller’s afflicted characters. The Huntington’s production is powerful, compelling, and emotional. Under director David Esbjornson, the cast perfectly maintains Miller’s dramatic tension from the beginning, where we are certain that something is rotten in the Keller family, through the end, where a tragic moral reckoning occurs. Before the Keller’s secrets and lies are revealed and reckoned with, the play’s tension builds and here, it’s tangible, like an invisible character always on-stage.
Scott Bradley has built a barren, while mildly reflective of post-war American prosperity, set that gives the production a smart touch of Ibsen and Bergman. A plain backing is either lighted as a blank abstraction of a Midwestern horizon or used as a massive movie screen for Maya Ciarrocchi’s film montages–a device I liked and wish they had used more of. Stock footage of WWII planes was spliced with the Andrews Sisters singing Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree and Near You.
Karen MacDonald gives an amplified and severely melodramatic performance as Kate Keller, whose absolute denial of her son’s death during the War and secrets regarding her husband’s wartime business dealings and legal acrobatics push her towards a visible hysteria. She’s a tragic figure of Classical proportions and MacDonald’s emotional amplitude far exceeds those of the rest of the cast, so much so that Kate seems transplanted from something written in Greek. She’s one apart from everyone else in her affliction and seems to suffer actual physical pain in one or two of the play’s more weighty moments.
Lee Aaron Rosen as Chris, the idealistic Keller boy who made it out of the War alive and now has his eyes set on his late brother’s old girlfriend, delivers, in kind of an emotional monotone that I didn’t really connect with, his ardent idealism that, although it does need to be transparent at times, doesn’t seem compelling enough to embody, as it should, the idealism of a whole country or a generation. But, his performance does seem to have a place in the overall production.
My favorite performance was Will Lyman’s as the Keller patriarch Joe. Lyman began with a rather two dimensional archetypal portrayal of the proud father, good neighbor, and peace-inclined husband, but slowly reveals his own secrets and cynicism and eventually, as the play’s tensions unfold and resolve themselves, his extreme guilt. Joe Keller is almost two separate characters. The suited cigar-smoking hard-nosed businessman who puts a con on George (the son of his incarcerated former business partner) in Act II is hardly the jovial, hard-working American patriarch the play opens with. Lyman moves between these incarnations with convincing ease, eventually levelling the Universal moral plane his surviving son is so devoted to.
The circumstances Miller inserts the Kellers, and those connected to them, into are extreme and representative of melodrama we don’t really see in contemporary theater, or even in most of the classics that remain popular enough to be produced, but that doesn’t detract from the power of the play’s subject matter or its relevance to a modern audience. In one instance the production mocks Miller’s sexually-innocent language. Chris and Ann first admit their affections for one another and intention to be married; “Chris: I’m going to make you so happy [he kisses her but without their bodies touching] / Ann [a little embarrassed]: Not like that you’re not.” This got a big chuckle from the audience that was, considering the innuendo in Diane Davis’ (Ann) tone and her comic timing,obviously expected and intentional. Surely Miller didn’t mean to communicate that much sexual innuendo and if this were a contemporary play about modern white collar criminals, a little more would have probably gone down between the couple. You are more likely to cringe or dry your eyes than laugh at this American tragedy that’s brought back to life and a new pertinence in this complex and richly layered production that maintains a broad scope through diverse interpretations of its characters and a smartly modern landscape of set.