Published in Gay and Lesbian Times August 22, 2002
Arthur Miller never really goes out of style (though he may shift in and out of popularity), because his plays deal primarily with morality and social conscience. Preachy or not, we need him now, more than ever.
“All My Sons” was Miller’s first successful play. When it premiered in 1947, it foreshadowed his later, greater masterwork, “Death of a Salesman.” A lot of the same elements are there: a father-son conflict, where the son learns an ugly truth about his father. An American Everyman who causes his own downfall, thus becoming a tragic figure in the classical definition. In this case, the secondary subject is war profiteering, but the play is really about responsibility to self and society.
In his director’s notes, Richard Seer reports on a frighteningly similar story — a man selling defective airplane parts to the U.S. military. The one Seer recounted happened just four months ago. Clearly, in the past half-century, we haven’t lost our hunger for money or our rationalizations for getting it at any cost. In “All My Sons,” Miller (like Chekhov) has a pedantic doctor explain it all for us: “It takes a certain talent for lying to live with something like that… A compromise is always made…. Every man does have a star — a star of one’s honesty. .. Once it’s out, it never lights again.”
Even without his explication, the message comes through loud and clear. And in the Globe production, the clarity is dazzling. David Ledsinger’s gorgeous set, a clapboard house and yard in Anytown, USA, is gloriously lit by Trevor Norton with a dappled, golden glow that, as the day wears on and the mood gets darker, deepens in color and hue.
There’s an equal amount of shading in the characterizations onstage. Daniel J. Travanti is a likable and stubborn old coot as Joe Keller, fiercely defensive of his family and his acts. He takes us along on his unsettling emotional journey, from a robust survivor at the outset to a self-protective shambles by the end. Robin Pearson Rose brings her usual aching reality to the role of Kate, Joe’s long-suffering wife, a woman who knows the price of honesty. So she holds out, refusing to admit that her pilot son, lost in action 3 1/2 years ago, is not ever going to return home. As their remaining son Chris, Brian Hutchison is a credible naif, a simple, weak-willed guy who sees the world in black and white and puts his father on a pedestal. When he invites his brother’s girlfriend home, with the intent of marrying her, it sets off a series of inexorable events that will ultimately bring down the House of Keller. All the secondary characters, though capably played, are less multi-dimensional and meaty roles. They serve mainly as foils, antagonists, precipitators or commentators. The extraneous pieces of small-town life stand out as flaws in Miller’s early effort. His later works stripped down the issues to the essentials, with less decoration and backstory needed.
But “All My Sons” still has the power to move us, it can still make us laugh and sigh. It touches the heart and heads straight for the soul. In these amoral, materialistic, war-ravaged times, we really need Arthur Miller, to show us who we are and what we could be.
“All My Sons” runs through August 31, in the Old Globe Theatre; 619-239-2255.
©2002 Patté Productions Inc.