All My Sons,by ArthurMiller. Directed by Mary B. Robinson. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Shannon Marie Sullivan, Gabriel Vaughan, Molly Regan, Davy Raphaely, Christopher Kelly; photo: Hubert Schriebl
"We're like a railroad station waiting for a train to come in."
Tentative people playing the all-too human game of "loving support" fill the neighborhood where Arthur Miller sets his 1947 play ALL MY SONS now on stage at the Weston Playhouse in Weston, Vermont. Chris Keller's parents, Joe and Kate, live in the house they've always lived in and their adult son lives at home with them, works in his father's factory and secretly dates Ann Deever, the girl who used to live next door, the girl who was engaged to his older brother who has died in world war II. His somewhat altruistic presence is an inspiration to his current neighbor, Doctor Jim Bayliss who longs to leave his active neighborhood practice and get into medical research which to his wife, Sue, would be a fatal mistake. The neighbors on the other side, Frank and Lydia Lubey, were high school sweethearts, now with three kids of their own. Everyone spend a lot of time with the Kellers, those nice people in the middle of the block. Even little children like to visit here, to play games with old Joe Keller, patriarch, perfect, pre-eminent.
There's one little problem, though. In spite of their affirmed friendships, all of the neighbors know that Joe has a dirty little secret. They all "know" what they know, that Joe Keller let defective airplane parts leave his factory and that twenty-one fighting Americans lost their lives because of those cracked housings. They all "know" that Joe let his partner take the rap and stay in prison as a result of his own actions, or inactions. Everyone knows all of this, but no one wants to step out of the unseen "Greek Chorus" of a neighborhood and point an accusing finger.
As in every Greek Tragedy of a play, there is one individual willing to make the big step, to point the finger and to call out the villain. This is Ann's brother George who comes to visit in the middle of a heat wave, to stop his sister from marrying into this family, to valiantly defend his own aging father whom he has only just visited for the first time in years. He is a highly moral man, a lawyer who has little faith in his own profession. He is a man on a moral mission who, ultimately, is distracted by the simplicity of grape juice, the warmth of old associations and the charm of the Kellers.
This is my favorite Arthur Miller play, a much finer work than his acknowledged masterpiece "Death of a Salesman" which followed it onto Broadway two years later. "All My Sons" won the first TONY Award in 1946 and established Miller as a bright, up-and-coming playwright. It was the second of his early trilogy of plays where a major father-figure ends up dead, pointing perhaps to problems in the playwright's own family life. The difference between his first and third plays and this one in the middle is the rationale for death. Here it is the quiet admission of guilt and the inability to face his accusers and take one more moral stand over an issue that is clearly of his own making. Joe Keller understands what must be done in his case and he does it. This act, though saddening, lifts this tragedy into the stratosphere, makes it a morality play about mankind's ability to set things right in the end.
David Wohl plays Joe with a darkly delicate charm. He shows us the good neighbor and good father and good husband who lives easily with the dirty secret that haunts his wife's sleep. His early scene with a local kid, Bert - beautifully played by Django Grace who's natural portrait of the boy would seem to set him on a career course as an actor - presents the perfect picture of the nice guy on the street, the best father-figure and neighbor imaginable. Wohl imbues Joe with a warmth and with an understanding of human nature that is absolute. It's a great performance, both for Wohl himself and for his character in that place in that time that Miller has given us.
His son Chris is played with similar self-assurance by Davy Raphaely. His tenderness is never a deceptive one. He hates the secret he is hiding from his parents. He adores his life and the people in it and, as Raphaely presents him, Chris is ready for the fall from grace his family is about to take. In fact, it is through his actions that Joe follows his logical course of action. Raphaely has one of those faces that let's us see what his character feels even when his words are presenting a different picture. It's a marvelous performance of a young man maturing through circumstances and the acquiring of dangerous knowledge.
Shannon Marie Sullivan is a lovely Ann Deever. It is easy to see why both Chris and his older brother would be attracted to her. Sullivan plays the role with clear intentions. She gives Ann a reality that has escaped other actresses, a deeper reality that, when she reveals the God moment - a letter from the dead son/fiance - comes as a complete surprise to the Kellers and to us. That we don't see it coming is due to Sullivan's portrayal of Ann, a woman who also harbors a secret, that knowledge which can destroy the human soul.
Her brother George is very handily represented by Christopher Kelly. He is a late arrival and an early departee in the play and his impact is overwhelming. Kelly takes the role to a different place than usual and when Kate Keller goes after him to sway him away from his need for revenge and he falls under her spell again as she resorts to the tactic of childhood memory Kelly softens his George, turns him into a ten year old kid before our eyes. Kelly does this wonderfully. We can actually see this transition in him, not just hear it as we often do.
I know I am doing nothing but praising, but this troupe of actors is doing a perfect job in this production. They are playing exactly what the author called for and not trying to "compensate" for the formal structure of the play. Too often I have seen this play taken apart and reconstructed in someone else's moral-minded creativity. Elizabeth Morton's Sue Bayliss, for example, has the correct verbal smarminess when she talks about Joe and Kate Keller. Piper Goodeve plays the outrageous simple faith in human nature that is written into Lydia Lubey. These two women are the polar opposites of reality that make this play so much the ultimate embodiment of traditional Greek melodrama.
Gabriel Vaughan as Frank Lubey and Tim Rush as Jim Bayliss are the backup singers in this chorus of neighbors. Like his wife Frank is devoted to Kate Keller and to his now dead friend Larry Keller. He plays the need to believe in a good God who wouldn't take an innocent life with remarkable innocence and makes it work. Rush, on the other hand, is a constant picture of devotion to a wife who has knack of corrupting his dreams and wishes. With each successive scene we witness his destruction brick by brick through her anxiety and her understanding of unspoken truths. Both men turn in fine performances.
It is the Kate Keller presented here by actress Molly Regan who holds the play together. This woman, if she was a knitter, would be creating a wealth of woolen strands conforming to her own desires and work. Regan is a force of nature, really. She brings Kate alive in a way that is both repellent and controlling. It is hard, as she plays the matriarch, to escape her clutches; the others in the play are woven into the fabric she knits. At the same time it is apparent that she dislikes most of the people she knows and she cannot help but make them feel her arrogant distaste for them. It is more than just Kate's actions, packing her houseguests things for them without telling them for example, it is her tone, artificial when sweet, sour when more privately reactive, that really defines the woman and Regan has mastered that dichotomy perfect. Her vision of Kate Keller is the ideal that Miller has of motherhood, an ideal that is borne out in Linda in Miller's next play "Death of a Salesman." In a true ensemble there are no stars; in this ensemble one emerges after all and that is Molly Regan.
Jason Simms simple set is fine for the play, but I disliked seeing people inside and outside the house being in the same place upstage right. Grier Coleman's costumes so rightly depict the period of the play and keep it from being in some undefined time - which I have seen in other productions. The lighting design created by Jiyoun Chang gives this play its definition as the actions of a single day, another vaguely Greek element of the Miller play. Music, sound and original music by Christopher Colucci work perfectly. The ubiquitous Ryan Winkles has staged the minimal fights very well indeed.
Mary B. Robinson deserves our thanks for a flawless edition of "All My Sons." Her vision of the play and her handling of its cast allows us to see finally the play that Arthur Miller imagined and wrote. She is clearly an inciteful and masterful director for the theater and I hope she never goes away.
Is it clear by now that this is a production no one who loves good theater should miss? If you have any doubt, let me say it again: do not miss this play. This is what great theater is all about.
Django Grace, David Wohl; photo: Hubert Schriebl
Piper Goodeve, Gabriel Vaughan; photo: Hubert Schriebl
Christopher Kelly, Shannon Marie Sullivan, Molly Regan; photo: Hubert Schriebl
All My Sons plays at the Weston Playhouse on the town green at 12 Park Street, Weston, Vermont through September 4. For tickets and information call the box office at 802-824-5288 or go on line at westonplayhouse.org.