Monday, January 22, 2018

Of Love and War: Arthur Miller's 'All My Sons' Provides Forever Timely Look at the Consequences of Our Decisions, at Court -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

All My Sons
by Arthur Miller
directed by Charles Newell
Court Theatre, Chicago
Thru February 11

Every time I see an Arthur Miller play, it acutely reminds me why I consider him my favorite playwright ever.

While there are many dramatists whose work I very much enjoy, including some rather new ones, I find a resonance in Miller's plays that goes well beyond what I'm seeing onstage.

Not unlike my feelings about musicals by Stephen Sondheim, songs by the Beatles, concerts by Bruce Springsteen, jazz recordings by John Coltrane and prime examples from other cherished practitioners who transcend even the best of their idioms, there is a depth & breadth to Miller that just makes me feel that much more attuned to the human condition.

This was reiterated by a fine production of All My Sons by Court Theatre, a professional company operating on the University of Chicago campus. Their work has long been estimable, though it's been awhile since I last made the trek from Skokie.

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
But having the gist of All My Sons long etched in memory from a 2005 staging by Chicago's Redtwist Theatre--I recently referenced the underlying themes of the play in my review of Tracy Letts' new The Minutes at Steppenwolf--I really wanted to see it.

And am very glad I did.

Court's artistic director Charles Newell directs this version of the 1947 play which marked Miller's first taste of success, and while the staging isn't boldly re-imagined like Ivo van Hove's stark, barefoot A View from the Bridge--seen last fall at Goodman--the production values are all first-rate.

Probably somewhat daringly for a writer whose only previous Broadway play, The Man Who Had All the Luck, closed after just four performances in 1944, in All My Sons Miller sets things up engrossingly in the first act, but the edge-of-your-seat tension doesn't really kick in until midway through Act II.

Set in a suburb, seemingly of Columbus, Ohio, shortly after World War II has ended, All My Sons centers--quite literally in John Culbert's attractive scenic design at Court--on the Keller family.

The patriarch, Joe Keller (the always superb John Judd), runs a successful factory that, as a defense contractor, makes airplane parts for the military.

His wife, Kate (Kate Collins) maintains an anguished belief that their oldest son, Larry, hasn't been killed in the war, despite his whereabouts being unknown for over 3 years.

Living with them and working for Joe is another son, Chris (Timothy Edward Kane), who--like presumably most who serve in battle--has seen and experienced things he doesn't like discussing.

A family named the Deevers had lived next door to the Kellers but moved away, as the unseen father, Steve, was Joe's business partner but is now in jail. Their attractive daughter, Ann (Heidi Kettenring)--her appearance is oft-referenced in the script--was Larry's girlfriend, but as the play opens she is staying in the Keller house due to a nascent relationship with Chris.

The Baylisses (Karl Hamilton & Johanna McKenzie Miller) and Lubeys (Bradford Ryan Lund & Abby Pierce) now live on either side of the Kellers,

Early on, All My Sons seems to be about Chris' desire to wed Ann, which she and Joe know about, but Kate doesn't. Given his mother's emotional state, and stated belief that Larry is still alive, Chris is afraid to tell her even after his courtship of Ann develops desirably.

But adding considerable depth to the narrative, we learn that Steve Deever is locked up due to Joe & his company supplying faulty aircraft engine cylinder heads to the army, resulting in the death of 21 pilots. (The popular current musical act, Twenty One Pilots, hailing from Columbus, took their name from this reference, which is based on a real-life incident.)

Though initially arrested as well, Joe was exonerated, and the question about whether he should also have been severely punished--for complicity and/or cover-up--hangs over much of the play, from late in Act I until the end.

The arrival at the Kellers' of Ann's brother George Deever--a WWII vet with PTSD, demonstrably agitated after visiting his dad in jail--amps up questions of Joe's guilt.

I certainly won't reveal exactly what happens, but Joe's defense/excuse for any suggested wrongdoing is that he had a family to support--as well as employees--and wanted to pass on a thriving business to his sons.

It's powerful subject matter, still quite resonant today. As I mentioned above, I thought of this play in seeing The Minutes, which also deals with people who avoid doing what many might consider "the right thing" due to myriad harmful repercussions such a choice so might bring.

After All My Sons, Miller would repeatedly demonstrate mastery--in Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, A View From the Bridge, Incident at Vichy, The Price and more--in posing questions of morality likely not so easily answered, completely truthfully, by those in the audience.

Yet while this is definitely an excellent staging of a superlative play, I found some of the acting and casting choices a bit puzzling.

I'm not going to call anyone out specifically as being miscast; that's certainly not warranted. The actors are all established veterans, many whom I've seen elsewhere, and--for the most part--completely first-rate in their performances here. 

But the perceived ages of the actors/actresses are in many cases quite different from those stated for the characters (or my scant recollection of seeing another production 13 years ago).

This in itself wouldn't be a problem, but it left me confused about the connections between certain characters, some supposedly less than 5 years different in age but appearing here more like 15+.

And while Judd is certainly terrific as Joe Keller, my (admittedly hazy) past perception was that we are supposed to see the patriarch as a good man who makes a terrible mistake, for a somewhat appreciable rationale. Here, I wasn't nearly as empathetic. (Perhaps I've become too tolerant of white men thinking they're somehow above others, but I felt similarly about the characterization of Eddie Carbone in Goodman's A View from the Bridge, as really just an asshole, not some tragic hero.)

This isn't directly tied to the above parenthetical, but even as a 1947 play set in Ohio, it also seemed
the 10-member cast in Hyde Park might have benefited from some diversity.

And perhaps due to what I perceived as a bit of overacting, it felt like the play's powder keg conclusion carried on a bit too long, with a few too many overtly overwrought moments. 

But to be clear, what I did like, and appreciate, about All My Sons, once again, in a truly impressive production, far outweighs quibbles about how it could have been better.

I imagine there may have been somewhere around Chicago I could have seen Arthur Miller's first masterwork more recently, but I can't recall such an opportunity.

So the chance to see such a fine rendition of an important, resonant play by--IMO--the best playwright of all-time (at least excluding Shakespeare, but Miller's plays honestly connect with me more) shouldn't be readily passed by.

Great theater is timeless, not just as thrilling entertainment, but as thought-provoking allegory.

And you'd be remiss not to see Joe Keller newly have his day in Court's comfortable auditorium. you consider what you wouldn't do for all your sons and daughters.

1 comment:

Hemingway1955 said...

1) Are there any contemporary playwrights who approach Arthur Miller's talent?
2) But wasn't Stanley Kowalski in "Streetcar Named Desire" a famous asshole too?