All My Sons
At the Court Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago –There was a waiting list for opening night tickets to the Court Theatre’s revival of Arthur Miller’s drama “All My Sons.” The word must have gone out that this would be a special event on the local theater scene. The production justified the anticipation. This is an absorbing production that builds to a shattering climax that should leave spectators stunned.
“All My Sons” opened in 1947, Miller’s second play and his first hit. Two years later came “Death of a Salesman,” which became Miller’s flagship work. But even though “Salesman” is a more theatrically complex play, “All My Sons” can stake its claim as at least its equal.
All the action in “All My Sons” takes place on one summer evening in a suburban backyard home occupied by Joe Keller, a prominent town industrialist, his wife Kate, and their remaining son Chris. The early atmosphere is deceptively relaxed. But before long an undercurrent of tension surfaces. Its roots go back three years to a scandal involving Keller and his business partner. The partner is currently in prison for selling defective airplane parts that led to the deaths of 21 American pilots during the recently ended World War II. Keller’s son Larry was a pilot who was lost in action during the war.
Kate Keller refuses to believe Larry is dead. She lives in the unshakeable belief that eventually he will turn up, her obsession verging on mental illness. Larry had been engaged to Ann Deever, the daughter of Joe’s jailed partner. Once engaged to Larry, Ann has moved away after disowning her disgraced father. Now she has returned to marry Chris. Kate bitterly opposes the marriage as disloyalty to the absent Larry, who Kate fanatically insists will someday return. We eventually learn that Joe falsely denied any part in sending the faulty engines into combat, leaving the partner to take full responsibility and the jail time. The narrative explodes in the third act when Ann’s brother George Deever arrives to accuse Keller of betraying his father. The exposure ratchets up the story’s emotional atmosphere to the violent conclusion.
For decades “All My Sons” has generally been considered a morality play of social realism with roots back to Henrik Ibsen in the 19th century. Keller justifies turning on his partner as a matter of family loyalty. If he acknowledges his role in the engine scandal, he loses his livelihood, robbing his family of their income and Chris’s legacy as Joe’s successor in the business. Joe also calls up the profit motive. “Nothing’s clean .It’s dollars and cents.” But Chris fires back that Joe’ responsibility was to society and not to his narrow personal interests. “There’s a universe outside and you’re responsible to it.”Joe learns that Larry deliberately killed himself during the war out of shame for his father’s complicity in sending those 21 pilots to their death. Near the play’s end, Joe muses “I think to him (Larry) they were all my sons. And I guess maybe they were.”
Miller’s script utilizes melodramatic plot devices from the Ibsen era, like a play ending in a suicide and a previously unknown letter suddenly surfacing that supplies crucial narrative information. But director Charles Newell puts his creative footprint on the drama by reconfiguring the Miller original into a more expansive vision that resembles a an ancient Greek tragedy (with Joe’s final downfall offering a tinge of “King Lear”).
John Culbert’s permanent set is dominated by a flight of six broad steps leading up to an almost abstract rear façade of the Keller house, transforming the locale beyond its image of normal middle class American life to the stark exterior of a classical forum. Periodically, supporting characters enter on both sides of the stage, standing motionless and mute, a judgmental Greek chorus observing the inexorable unveiling of Joe Keller’s tragedy.
Newell’s high intensity vision of the story makes enormous demands on the performers. The wrenching emotional outpouring are just short of over-the-top, punctuated by Joe Keller’s chilling howl of anguish. The cast’s curtain call was uncommonly short, I suspect because the performers were too emotionally spent to take extended bows.
The entire ensemble rises to the dramatic heights demanded of Newell’s interpretation. Joe Keller is the nominal center of the play but Kate Keller is really the engine that drives the evening. Kate Collins brings an often frightening power to the character, making the woman the most riveting and complex figure in the story. This is not to deny John Judd praise for making Joe Keller come alive as an uncomplicated man being torn apart by his inner recognition of his crime against his partner. If a local theater fancies a revival of “Death of a Salesman,” Judd is their Willy Loman.
Timothy Edward Kane and Heidi Kettenring are both brilliant as the conflicted Chris Keller and Ann Deever, both horrified about the revelation of Joe’s betrayal and distraught and ashamed that they failed to recognize the truth of Joe’s role in the scandal when the clues were there for them to see (Chris already had deeply buried suspicions). As Ann’s vengeance-seeking brother, Dan Waller appears in only one extended third act scene but he superbly drives the narrative to its passionate conclusion with the exposure of the Keller perfidy that destroyed his father. Bradford Ryan Lund, Johanna McKenzie Miller, Karl Hamilton, and Abby Pierce are all first rate as neighboring married couples who establish well etched individual personalities while grouped as silent inscrutable witnesses to the scorching drama unveiling before them.
The physical production is led by Culbert’s semi abstract set, enhanced by Keith Parham’s often dramatic lighting and the sound design by Andre Pluess. Jacqueline Firkins designed costumes that anchor the setting in America’s immediate postwar years.
“All My Sons” certainly succeeds as a social drama about an outwardly contented family forced to face guilt from their past. The themes of family loyalty and making money versus the greater good are persuasively debated. In the final summation, Miller’s realistic underpinnings mesh with Newell’s striking vision to create a theatrical and dramatic experience that elevates the drama to a new level.
The show gets a rating
“All My Sons” runs through February 11 at the Court Theatre, 5535 South Ellis Avenue. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $44 to $74. Call 773 753 4472 or visit www.CourtTheatre.org.