I saw the original Broadway production of this, Arthur Miller’s second Broadway outing, when I was 20 years old; and it struck me as a sober introduction to a playwright who clearly represented many an American who had spent a lifetime earning a living for his family in a small midwestern town without spending too much time putting his behavioral patterns under a microscope.
Self-delusion, denial, expediency, little white lies, altered memory, all played a part for many who had regret for some of the early mistakes in their younger lives.
“All My Sons” deals with such a man — Joe Keller, the owner of a factory that makes parts for many machines. Now approaching 60, he lives a comfortable life with his wife Kate and his son Chris. He’d lost another son, Larry, in the recently ended World War II; but his wife has never given up hope that Larry is alive somewhere and will return one day because his body has never been found. Though it’s three years since he’d last been seen flying overseas for the Air Force, there had never been proof that he was dead.
There had been an incident involving impaired equipment that came from Joe’s factory during the war – equipment that had been shipped even though Joe’s partner had reported to him that its cylinders were cracked and might affect the safety of the aircraft they would serve. When 21 planes crashed killing their pilots, an investigation led to a trial during which only his partner was convicted and imprisoned. Joe had been cleared, as he had been ill with the flu on the day the material had been shipped and was not at the office to give permission for the delivery of the flawed merchandise.
Now, as the play opens, it is the third anniversary of the day Larry had disappeared. They had planted a tree in his memory in their backyard; and there, before a set showing us the yard behind their home and the side of the house next door, is where the play is set.
It’s a fine day in August 1947, the morning after a violent rainstorm has damaged the yard including the tree that was planted in Larry’s memory. What will occur in the three acts that cover a Sunday morning, that evening, and 2 a.m. the following morning, contains a spine-tingling drama centering around Joe, Kate, and their surviving son, Chris. Larry’s widow, Anne Deever, a girl who had grown up next door where they’d met as children, will also figure prominently in the story as it unfolds and reveals secrets long held closeted while unraveling the events of the past three years.
This Keller family will be destroyed, and there will be no happy ending. There will be no hope for redemption or exoneration.
At 20, I had been reasonably protected from many of life’s lies; and though I found these characters in Mr. Miller’s play fascinating and completely plausible, they resembled no one I knew; or so I thought at the time. Now, almost 70 years later, I found this excellent revival far more relevant than it had been for me originally.
Behavior today has become transparent; idealism is generally considered something to hide, particularly in the demanding world of a commercial society. Everyone seems to have a stake in global markets in one way or another, and success is now judged primarily by one’s net worth in dollars. The United States is in the midst of a struggle that philosophically divides us, and Miller dealt with it much earlier than most.
He was greatly influenced by Henrik Ibsen whose plays dealt with the social and political issues of his day in Norway. He wrote during the second half of the 19th century and is known as “the father of realism.” It’s a term that could have been coined to describe Arthur Miller as one of its most eloquent advocates.
Director Jack O’Brien has given us a brilliant production, casting Annette Bening, Tracy Letts, and Benjamin Walker; and all of them deliver magnificently. Ms. Bening, in one of her infrequent stage appearances, has found a way to make Kate Keller’s obsession about her son Larry’s survival believable and monumentally moving. When the truth finally reaches her unwilling ears, she is a broken woman; but one who will survive. I can’t think of a playwright, other than Tracy Letts, whose talents are just as visible when he’s acting as they are when he’s writing a play. He is riveting as Joe Keller, a weak man who’s finally forced to face some bitter truths as he runs out of options.
I should have noticed Benjamin Walker earlier, for his credits onstage and in film are certainly respectable. As the surviving younger son Chris Keller in “All My Sons” he is powerful, memorable, and his need for catharsis is absolutely palpable.
Francesca Carpanini, a young graduate of Julliard, is impressive as Ann Deevers, the young widow of the older Keller son. The supporting cast of friends, neighbors, and spouses is first rate, each finding a moment to shine with Miller’s incredible ear for the vernacular.
Because of the current state of our nation, “All My Sons” was for me a new play, not a revival. It is more relevant and powerful today than it was in the post WWII years, and I recommend it to anyone who likes “brave and bold” as adjectives to describe an outing at first class theater.
American Airlines Theatre, 227 W 42nd St.
Two acts, 2 1/2 hours. One intermission
Closes June 23, 2019