‘All My Sons,’ Exceptional Performances Infuse Miller’s Play With Grist and Power
Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons speaks with resounding energy about our current time in its themes and characterizations despite its setting 72-years-ago in an America that no longer exists. Directed with acute insight and sensitivity, Jack O’Brien opens the play with the shock of a lightening crash as sounds of thunder dissolve into the droning thrum of a plane. Projected on the curtain we see the visual of a doomed plane speeding toward its demise.
Later, we discover the symbolism. During the fierce storm which destroys a memorial tree in the backyard, Kate Keller (the fabulous Annette Bening) wakes with a nightmare about her son, Larry, a WWII pilot who is MIA. O’Brien adroitly realizes Kate’s nightmare and the storm which destroys Larry’s memorial to foreshadow the coming turmoil in the next day and a half that changes the lives of the Keller family forever.
This auspicious beginning, however, is quelled by the sunny atmosphere of August in the gorgeous, bucolic, serenity of an upper middle class neighborhood where Joe Keller (the superb Tracy Letts), Kate and son Chris (an emotional, authentic portrayal by Benjamin Walker) reside in peace and plenty. The exquisite set by Douglas W. Schmidt invites with its blooming, well-trimmed wisteria vines regaling a square gazebo and homely, comfortable patio with companionable chairs. There, we imagine that pleasant and lively conversations have taken place over the years. Miller never takes us inside to reveal the intimacies of family interactions, a vital clue to this family. They cannot be intimate with each other for fear of cracking the image they present to each other and themselves.
All the play’s action is “out in the open,” “in plain sight,” an irony filled with contradictions. This living “in the public eye” belies the truth that threads throughout the play in one of Miller’s searing themes. In one form of another, the human condition is to live in lies and rationalizations that mask painful truths. The best of us attempt to confront and work through these to get to the core and evolve to “be better” as Chris suggests. Nevertheless, it is easier for us to keep our miserable truths hidden in the shadows while we live in hypocrisy.
It is this hypocrisy that eats away at the soul and mind in a terrible corruption that eventually destroys. An extension of this theme of the individuals is the theme of a society which lives in hypocrisy in a culture founded on lies. The end result is the rot blooms, the lies abide and the culture no longer distinguishes the difference between facts and obfuscations. The cultural dissolution that occur is not even recognizable to the national body politic.
Clearly, Miller reveals this is so for his protagonist Joe Keller and the neighborhood and society which enables Joe to maintain his untenable soul condition. In the backstory, Keller was found guilty of negligence in manufacturing defective aircraft parts that ended up bringing 21 pilots to their deaths. Joe and partner/neighbor Steve Deever, end up serving prison time. Joe appeals and is exonerated, foisting off the blame on Steve who is held accountable for the defective engines being sent out. Steve loses everything including his house and the love of his children who move away as he serves out his prison sentence.
When Joe returns home to neighborhood whispers of “murderer,” he holds his head high, fronts with his new business manufacturing household appliances, makes a ton of money and re-engages the friendship of his neighbors. In a few years he re-establishes the honor and integrity he once held through hard work and a well-meaning, generous, jovial public image. He does all of this for the benefit of his family, and especially for his son Chris who made it out of WWII alive and who will inherit the business.
As the details of the past are revealed, in subsequent acts we gradually understand the family dynamic. Stalwart and unshakable are Kate’s and Chris’ support of Joe during the trial and after feeding into the presumptions that he is a vindicated man with a restored public image. We also note the full blown love relationship Chris has with Steve’s daughter, Larry’s girlfriend, Ann Deever (Francesca Carpanini). Ann moved away after the trial, but writes to Chris and they pledge their love.. She comes to visit Chris, Kate and Joe to solidify their marriage plans with Joe and Kate from whom they’ve kept their love secret. Chris and Ann fear Kate will strongly oppose their marriage because “Larry is alive” and Ann must lovingly wait for him.
As the sunlight shines on Joe and his neighbor Dr. Jim Bayliss (Michael Hayden) and they chat about Ann’s visit, we have no sense of any underlying difficulties. O’Brien’s and the actors’ skill abides in the gradual unraveling of the characters’ consciousness, as each attempts to maintain the intricate bulwark of falsehoods that have carried them through three years of Larry’s absence and Joe’s exoneration, both chimaeras.
Lies are central to this family’s “wholeness” and “health,” as lies are central to America’s dominant “greatness” after the war. In secret, unbeknownst to us until the conclusion, each suppresses their guilt and fear rather than to confront the painful truth head on and bring it out “in the open” to heal. Kate and Joe are stuck in time, mired in the past. Joe recognizes Kate’s insistence that Larry’s “being alive” is a “fantasy.” But he goes along with it to comfort her and himself and avoid any discussion about the possible alternatives.
Likewise, Chris attempts to forge ahead but is locked in his own fears about his brother. It is no small irony that he chooses his brother’s girlfriend to wive and force the issue of Larry’s MIA by bringing her home to mom. Indeed, it is as if he is keeping Larry’s ghost hovering. Ann is the last person his mother will accept as his bride as long as “Larry is alive.” Chris, like his parents, is conflicted and lives with the guilt of his brother’s ghostly presence.
Each of the family members has created justifications; the more the truth threatens, the more elaborate the excuses. Ultimately, these reside in “I did it for you”-Joe, Kate or blaming others, “you made me”-Ann, Chris. Unable to work through the traumas to heal, they tiptoe around each other, wearing masks of goodness, righteousness and faith. The only one who believes these images is themselves.
The neighborhood encourages the family in their fantasies, as the larger society encourages ideologies about America’s goodness. However, as the play progresses, the Bayliss’s (Michael Hayden, Jenni Barber) candidly reveal everyone in the town believes Joe is guilty and Larry was killed by a defective engine. (the truth that Ann brings in a letter is worse).
Eventually, the truth is revealed when George Deever comes to confront them about Joe’s guilt, and Ann reads a letter revealing where Larry is. As George, Hampton Fluker’s, sorrow and yearning to be in the past with the family’s illusions before the hellish incident of negligence happened is beautifully graded and nuanced with poignance. Fluker’s emotional range from judgmental anger, love for the family to, indictment of their duplicity is beautifully developed.
Francesca Carpanini’s Ann approaches this visit with the Kellers as a developing revelation of her “love” for Chris which is founded in loneliness. Carpanini’s emotional range also solidifies her portrayal of Ann’s self-interest and wish to rid Kate of her illusions forever to extricate Chris from Kate’s hold over him. Her performance as the foil and enemy to the family is well rendered.
When Carpanini’s Ann reads the letter, it is a fascinating mixture of emotions. On the one hand she attempts to “help” by revealing the truth, a devastation that will most probably destroy Kate’s well being, but she does it anyway. When it backfires and Chris, Kate and Joe react counter to what she anticipates, she backpedals in an apologetic excuse blaming the family for “forcing her.” She is desperate to recapture Chris, but it’s too late. It is then she understands the length to which the family has unified against the truth which she selfishly used to move things her way.
Up to the point of domino revelations at the conclusion, Annette Bening’s portrayal as Kate Keller is a masterpiece of shifting emotions. She is like a tiger who must keep the family together at all costs and will use her cunning against anyone (like Ann or George) who threatens their circle. Thus, as Kate, Bening makes the reality that Larry is alive amazingly palpable. She is the mortar that holds the bricks Chris and Joe fashion into a wall to close themselves off against the truth. The structure is a protection to keep them from looking within to their self-hatreds, guilt and dishonor. If the bulwark of illusions cracks, they would attack and destroy each other; thus, to keep them safe, she sacrifices herself as “the crazy one” by basing her every thought and action around the spin about Larry and Joe.
The truth that George and Ann (ironic it takes Steve’s kids to do this) brings, she attempts to forestall with distractions luring George with love. But it is she who provides the damning piece of evidence to George who hands the sledgehammer to Ann. It is Ann who crashes down the structure that the family has unconsciously built to safe themselves and their self-righteous image to the public.
Annette Bening converts Kate’s belief into the driving force of will which lives and breathes and resurrects Larry’s presence. Bening is stunning in how she effects this, every moment she lives onstage. Her authenticity as she strikes the notes of Kate’s insistence and determination is so starkly alive, it gives Lett’s Joe and Walker’s Chris the charge and fluidity to carry that reality into their own portrayals making them vibrate with authenticity. Her good will toward George turns him off his intentions to indict Joe and the family with his Joe’s terrible abuse of his father Steve.
How Walker, Letts and Bening adeptly shepherded by O’Brien establish the nexus of Larry’s being both alive and a ghost who haunts all of them is just brilliant. It is the linchpin of the play and all of the action depends upon their getting this right which they do with spot-on intensity.
The more desperately Joe and Chris attempt to move away from Larry’s ghost, the greater Kate digs in (with her telepathy, her reading signs, her dream, her understanding of the Larry’s astrological chart). Chris’ selection of Ann, Larry’s girlfriend, as his future wife and his asking her to visit to end Kate’s faith about Larry. only exacerbates it. Bening and the others are mesmerizing during this dynamic of thrust and parry of unconscious desires to expurgate their guilt and exorcise Larry from their midst. Kate resists Ann’s presence and the marriage from the outset of her suspicions. Letts’ Joe never argues with Kate to counter her about the marriage. Miller makes it clear, Kate is unstoppable in her resistance to the marriage. The irony is that ultimately, Larry stops it. His voice comes in a letter from beyond the grave. And the revelation, one that Kate has feared all destroys the family unity.
Until the letter Letts, like Bening, is so invested, we are convinced that Joe is exonerated. Even Walker’s Chris cannot hold him accountable as they confront one another after George’s visit in a terrific scene that uncovers their souls. But it is only after Joe reads the letter himself, that he understands what he must do.
This sterling production especially reveals the verities and timelessness of Miller’s play. Joe Keller redeems himself at the end and leaves a legacy Kate knew in her heart was coming, but the pain was so great she couldn’t confront it until Joe does. It is Chris who is left to assemble the pieces of his shattering into a new ethos.
Miller’s tragic elements are the final apotheosis that uplift us to want to be “better than that,” but leave us knowing that if we were in this family’s shoes, we would probably do the same. In the currency of our time, self-righteousness and blaming the “others” has become a profitable boon. Such hypocrisy Miller suggests in Joe’s pointed aria at the end, which he eventually realizes is the last lie that must fall with himself.
The conclusion mounts to a climax of power and poignance and delivers the blow that Miller desires and O’Brien perfectly crashes down on the audience. This tour de force of sensational ensemble work is perhaps the best iteration I’ve seen of this play to date. At its core, the production has delivered Miller’s thematic wisdom from start to finish. The ensemble’s prodigious talent at hitting the bulls-eye with each and every portrayal makes this production the incredible rendering it is.
Kudos to the creative team: Jane Greenwood (Costume Design) Natasha Katz (Lighting Design) John Gromada (Sound Design) Jeff Sugg (Video and Projection Design) Bob James (Original Music) Douglas W. Schmidt (Set Design)
All My Sons runs with one intermission at The American Airlines Theatre on 42nd Street. It is in a limited run until 23rd June. For tickets and times go to their website by CLICKING HERE.