(L-R) Elizabeth Bunch as Ann Deever, Jay Sullivan as Chris Keller, Josie de Guzman as Kate Keller and James Black as Joe Keller in the Alley Theatre’s production of All My Sons. Photo by John Everett.
All My Sons
Written by: Arthur Miller
Directed by: Theresa Rebeck
Company: Alley Theatre
Starring: Elizabeth Bunch, Jay Sullivan, Josie de Guzman and James Black
Dates: March 27 through April 19, 2015
I recently read an interview with Julius Novick, a veteran theatre critic whose work appeared in the Village Voice, Newsday and New York Observer among other outlets, in which he offered some thoughts on critical responsibility. To paraphrase his succinct yet weighty views, our job as critics is never to simply say if a show was good or not. Despite the fact that this is what most people want to know up front. As critics, Novick says, our duty is to look at a play within the context of our world and question what it is trying to tell us, how it’s attempting to do that and where the notions come from in the first place. Simply talking about how a show works or doesn’t work misses the point. Perhaps there is no better play to put this approach to practice on than Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, now in performance at the Alley Theatre under the direction of Theresa Rebeck.
Miller’s world for this play (penned in 1947) is post World War 2 America dealing at once with the tragedy of young soldiers lost and the gleeful greed that a post war booming economy begat in America. These societal issues are filtered by Miller through the Kellers, a family that has been touched by and reacted to both extremes. Father Joe Keller ran a factory during the war which sent out faulty airplane parts that resulted in the death of twenty-one American soldiers. Rather than see his business falter, Joe lies when accused and lets his partner take the blame and do the time. While Miller makes it clear to us that those innocent soldiers were in fact metaphorically all Joe’s sons, he makes sure that Joe has a blood related son of his own (Larry) to mourn, even if his wife Kate is still holding out hope that he may one day return. Chris, the Keller’s other son, also fought in the war but returned home idealistic, moral as ever and more problematically in love with his dead brother’s girlfriend, Anne, who also happens to be Joe’s incarcerated partner’s daughter.
There’s no question that what Miller first envisioned as a commentary on time and place still has relevance for us as a modern audience. Themes of war profiteering are played out daily in our news cycles as are issues of corporate greed supplanting human compassion. And what of the family? Is it ever okay to do harm to others in order to do good for your loved ones? Miller is a playwright not afraid to hold up a capital M moral mirror in front of his audience and demand that they do and be better. The sermonizing aspect of the script which leaves little room for areas of grey may seem somewhat old-fashioned in the face of the everyone gets a say plays that continue to be en vogue. However we accept our ethical medicine in this case thanks to Miller’s superb character development and the heightened drama than unfolds as the Kellers’ lies and secrets crumble.
Or at least that is what should happen. However in Rebeck’s castrated production, all tension is sapped out of the story leaving us with an extraordinary relevant play with much to tell us that unfortunately is just not all that good.
The neutered nature of the show is apparent from the first seconds of the play when a windstorm causes a tree planted in Larry’s honour to crack and break outside the Keller’s handsome mushroom-coloured tony house (beautifully realized by Alexander Dodge). The limp toppling of the tree in a windstorm that barely blows the hair or dress of Kate who is outside to witness the felling, is the first disappointment in a string of lukewarm moments that sees the performers delivering the lines but not the impact.
As Joe Keller, James Black fares the best of the central cast, depicting a man quick with a joke and seemingly not all that perturbed by his corruption. He entertains us with his simple man jovial style but stiffens and cools when fear and guilt is called for leaving us questioning where the stakes are in his story? Joe’s whole life unravels in one moment yet Black fails to make us feel like all is lost for his character.
Kate Keller is a woman numb in her denial, but in Josie de Guzman’s hands she is numb on the stage as well. Relying too often on direction that has her tautly speaking to the darkness of the audience rather than her cast mates, de Guzman projects neither a woman with clueless conviction nor the wounded mother that knows deep down her son is dead. Even when given juicy lines and scenarios such as her prickly dressing down of Ann or her subtle nod that she’s in fact not clueless about her husband’s actions, de Guzman’s performance seems matter of fact as opposed to the gasp Miller intended it to be.
As newly minted sweethearts, Chris (Jay Sullivan) and Ann (Elizabeth Bunch) show painfully little chemistry together. Bunch is happy to swing around in her summer dresses, accepting lascivious praise and trying to conjure the young woman in love, but can then only manage awkward shrug after cutesy shrug when called upon to show her delight at being near Chris. When faced with the awful truth about her father and the family she intends to marry into, Bunch continues unmodulated, seemingly untouched by the drama that was supposed to be unfolding around her.
Chris is the other big stakeholder in Miller’s play. It’s his love and belief in his father that’s on the line here and Sullivan tries to shout and angst it out in the final confrontational scenes. But his previous inability to tug out our emotional strings when placidly recounting what should have been his heart wrenching war-time experience, bring us into the scene disconnected from the character. It’s truly the shame of the production as the father son showdown serves up some of Miller’s best writing and most subtle commentary. In defending himself to his son, Joe asks Chris if he did anything another man might not have done. Even with his moral stance, Chris acknowledges that Joe’s actions were how most men would have behaved, but then follows up with the stab in the heart lines, “I never saw you as a man, I saw you as my father…..You are no better. You can be better.” These are lines meant to bruise us all as who among us at some point hasn’t idealized a parent beyond the very real person they are. Unfortunately here, it’s the stab that barely produces a welt.
Oddly, while Rebeck shows little flair with her main characters, her supporting cast are warm, relatable and fall nicely into Miller’s naturalistic style of writing. Of particular note is Jeffrey Bean as neighbour Dr. Jim Bayliss who manages to both touch us with his unfulfilled dreams and surprise us with his revelations when the cat is out of the Keller’s bag.
Miller may have wanted us to examine the ills of society through the lens of the family unit, but in Rebeck’s production, the Kellers may be all that’s wrong with the world, but it’s the neighbour that has our attention. And that’s a different play altogether.
For Miller/All My Sons newbies – There was a woman sitting behind me who had never heard of Arthur Miller – “do people read him in school?”, she asked. At first I cringed, but was then comforted by the fact that for whatever reason, she was in attendance and would therefore never again have that level of Miller ignorance. However, is lukewarm Miller better than no Miller at all? Could a novice audience appreciate the story if not the production? I sit on the fence with this one. MAYBE SEE IT
For Miller fans – Stay home, read the script, avoid the castration. SKIP IT
For the occasional theater goer – It’s a handsome looking production in a digestible two acts. The moral questions are big and no one walks out of the theatre feeling good about having answered them. Had the riveting factor been present in this production though you might not have minded. SKIP IT
For theater junkies – All My Sons is not an oft produced play. At least not in my experience. For that reason I’d say see it so you know it and can appreciate why it’s still an important play to produce. But if you do, be prepared to bring your own imagination for what it might have been. MAYBE SEE IT