All My Sons
Keeping a secret is hard, but it becomes easier if doing so nets you some money. That’s Arthur Miller’s take on the American dream in his play "All My Sons," now on stage at Barrington Stage Company’s Union Street Theatre in Pittsfield, MA.
First performed in 1947, the play won the first Tony Award for best new play and set the playwright on to a successful course that would ultimately yield some of the finest American drama written in the 20th century. It is my favorite Miller work, far superior and overwhelmingly more subtle than his next piece, "Death of a Salesman," which is considered to be his masterpiece. "Sons" is a better play, far less predictable, with a classic structure which allies all the unities and presents as close to a Greek tragedy as you can find in the American collection of plays.
The new production, like its protagonists, contains flaws. Some of these may be directly related to the director’s stated belief that the play speaks to our present time as relevantly as it spoke to its own time. While she is absolutely right about the larger issue, Julianne Boyd is wrong about the play itself and the characters who populate the piece.
These are folks who lived in an era when formality was not an arms-length mannerism but was a way of expressing respect and understanding. Dressing for dinner was expected even in the heat of August. Touching people, even lightly, was rarely done for fear of offending others. Familiarity of any kind, in fact, was a suspicious act and not to be tolerated.
In this production, men rarely wear ties and jackets and women reach out and pet one another. When Joe Keller and his son Chris exchange physical reactions it feels wrong somehow. When Kate Keller grabs the wrists of Ann Deever it is shocking to the younger woman especially as her possible future mother-in-law seems so very unaware of what she is doing at that moment (that one is scripted and works just fine, but is a good example of what such a gesture can impart).
At the performance, the rhythm of the play seemed to be way off the mark in the first act and very good actors came across as a bit still and awkward. I assume it was nothing more than second performance jitters and that other audiences will not find this to be so. The play seemed to reach out into the realm of melodrama rather than drama for moments here, but if that is the intent, than let me just say that this is not necessarily a bad thing for the genuine pathos of the second and third acts that more than makes up for these little slips into a lesser form.
Jeff McCarthy in the role of Joe Keller makes the most of those second act revelations that open him up to a world he has ignored for most of his adult life. His easy jocularity in Act One re-emerges as desperate acts in the second half of the show and carries this transition off without a hitch, turning an awkward performance into a dynamic one.
As his younger son, Chris, Josh Clayton has the toughest role in the play. Chris is a survivor having come through the hell of World War II and the loss of his men with a sustained guilt and a mechanism for submerging it. He is brought to a new low point in this play as his father and mother slowly reveal their long-held secrets forcing him and his fiancée to reveal their own. Clayton makes the miracle occur as his sympathetic character becomes hideous and then attractive once again in a very short spate of time.
The accusations about Chris’ influence on her husband and other men delivered by Sue Bayliss, played to perfection by Pilar Witherspoon, helps us to understand what war and familial devotion, a blind devotion, can do to a good man. Her husband was somewhat listlessly realized by Peter Reardon. Andy Nogasky and Emily Kunkel as Frank and Lydia Lubey provide perfect realizations of their "good neighbor" characters and Matthew Carlson turns in a fine, if underplayed, performance as George Deever.
Together, Carlson and Rebecca Brooksher, as his sister Ann, bring in the messages that turn the tide for the Keller family. They enhance that sense of classic dramatic unity as their scenes in the second and third acts allow them to reveal secrets that the Kellers cannot bring into the light without some sordid provocation.
The Deevers are the Deus ex machina of the play, the god out of the machine. The Deevers reveal what the Kellers need to know, and what the audience needs to know as well, to make the play pull together and the tragedy in the drama work without it becoming maudlin and self-indulgent.
Brooksher turns in a fine performance, even though it didn’t truly begin until near the end of the first act. Her final exit is one I have never understood and there are no "open sesame" guidelines with this production. Still, her escape from the backyard set at this moment is handled beautifully and leaves us wondering all sorts of things about the future.
Lizbeth Mackay left me cold in the first act, her voice grating a bit, her posture and her look about as uninviting as one could imagine. But starting in the second act she began to give Joe’s wife Kate Keller a new and finer set of dimensions. She worked herself up into a pure virago and it was almost deadly to watch her twist and turn information into ammunition.
Mackay’s Kate manipulates situations with the deftness of a tornado on the Kansas prairie, contorting truth and reality into her own vision of truth and making everyone buy into it. By the final scenes of the play she was pulling tears and gulps out of me and everyone near me. From a slow start Mackay turns in the most compelling performance of the evening, her faux sweetness masking the truly villainous parts of her personality.
When the director leaves the play alone and stops trying to force a recognition with today the play works brilliantly. Boyd’s instincts are excellent for a play of this caliber and she should trust those instincts and leave deeper relevance to her audience. There is no need for a hard-pressed guideline when the play presents that and more. She is ably abetted in her presentation by her designers David M. Barber for sets, Jennifer Moeller for costumes, Scott Pinkney for lights and Will Pickens for sound.
This one intermission rendition works splendidly. Audiences slightly bored by the first act are riveted to their seats in the second and may be found weeping in the third. Arthur Miller’s "All My Sons" emerges from the pack as the finest drama of the season -- once again -- and is a credit to everyone involved in its production. I just wish that the concept was allowed to come forth in its own time and not need to be pushed into a painful awareness of itself. The play does all the work; it’s just that attention needs to be paid.
"All My Sons" runs through August 4 on the Boyd-Quinson Mainstage at Barrington Stage Company’s 30 Union Street Theatre in downtown Pittsfield, MA. For information and tickets call 413-236-8888 or visit www.barringtonstageco.org.