Story: Joe Keller has made a good life for himself. He lives with his wife Kate and son Chris in a nice home in the town (most likely in Ohio) where he owns and operates a factory. Just a few years earlier that plant made parts for airplanes used by the American military in combat during World War II.
Tragically, Joe and Kate’s oldest son Larry was reported missing in action during the war when the plane he was flying disappeared. Although grateful that younger son Chris returned home from the war, Kate continues to hope that Larry also will one day reappear, just as occasional stories in the newspaper indicate other combat veterans have done.
This is a point of consternation for Chris, who is in love with Larry’s fiancée, Ann. He’s invited his former neighbor back to town to propose to her, but there are considerable problems, including his mother’s insistence that Ann wait for Larry to return.
Ann and her family left town after her father and Joe were put on trial for supplying defective parts to the military, which led to the deaths of 21 pilots during World War II. Joe was exonerated, claiming he didn’t know about the bad parts, while his subordinate, Ann’s father Steve, was convicted and sent to prison.
Now Ann is scheduled to visit the Keller family at the same time that her brother George has discovered shocking information from their father about Joe’s true involvement in the company’s decision to forward defective materials. Exactly what kind of homecoming will this be for Ann and the Kellers?
Highlights: The Rep continues its 50th anniversary season with a searing, richly satisfying production of one of the best plays by one of America’s greatest playwrights. Arthur Miller’s beautifully written tragedy put him on the nation’s literary map in 1947, following the black-and-white wartime years with a litany of grey-hued questions that presented an often unflattering mirror to America’s victorious face.
Other Info: The Rep often begins the calendar year with a ‘heavy’ drama that offers considerable food for thought after the abundant confections of the holiday season. In his program notes, artistic director Steven Woolf writes that “In our anniversary season, it was important to include a play by one of the most influential American playwrights of any generation.”
Miller’s words continue to be relevant in the 21st century, asking tough questions about morality and ethics that present no easy answers. His two-act drama was inspired by a newspaper article about a real aeronautical plant whose executives knowingly provided defective parts to the military that led to the deaths of American soldiers.
The driving force of profits in capitalism, and the need for business owners to succeed and thrive whenever possible, served as the catalyst for Miller’s unflinching look at the repercussions of such a philosophy. His words, though, go beyond the political and into the hearts and minds of everyday people who often struggle to differentiate between right and wrong, actions and consequences.
The current presentation at The Rep solidly conveys Miller’s probing thoughts under associate artistic director Seth Gordon’s careful and studied direction. While action in the two acts is confined to the patio and back yard of the Keller home, Gordon’s players utilize entrances from the sides and back to ‘stretch out’ the play’s dimensions. Pacing is impeccable as Gordon keeps a steady focus on the players and their rapt dialogue.
Michael Ganio’s handsome set design includes a two-story home in the rear, delicately illuminated by lighting designer Peter Sargent in key dramatic moments, and a well-appointed back yard including patio furniture and a picket fence as well as a recently-felled tree heavy with symbolism.
Costumes designed by Myrna Colley-Lee appear accurate down to minute details, whether Joe’s droopy T-shirt, Ann’s stylish hose or Chris’ dapper duds for his planned night on the town with Ann. Rusty Wandall provides a subtle sound design with some jarring jazzy elements that presage impending doom for the Kellers and unexpected troubles for the nation.
Patrick Ball’s searing performance as Chris leads Gordon’s meticulously assembled cast. Ball embodies all of the frustrations and doubts of the younger generation in this Greek tragedy where the sins of the fathers have unknowing and relentless consequences. His portrayal moves capably between Chris’ euphoria in his love for Ann to his anguish about his family’s past.
John Woodson expertly portrays the familiar Miller protagonist, the hard-working family man Joe whose hidden villainy is revealed slowly and with well-presented complexity in Woodson’s wide-ranging performance. Margaret Daly ups the ante in her role as the long-suffering Kate, capped with a terribly poignant moan in the play’s climactic scene.
Mairin Lee offers a rich interpretation of Ann, showing her full love for Chris as well as her determination to leave a sordid family past behind her, demonstrating Ann’s own considerable resilience when plagued by Kate’s unrealistic demands. Zac Hoogendyk makes a powerful appearance as Ann’s angry brother George, who softens just a little in Kate’s sugary sweet reunion with him before a few careless words turn everything upside down.
The fine supporting cast that fleshes out this microcosm of post-war America includes Ana McAlister as spunky neighbor lad Bert and Jim Ireland as the Keller neighbor and town physician, Dr. Jim Bayliss, a man who endures his marriage by acknowledging that he lives “in the usual darkness,” a starkly stunning phrase by which Miller defines the quiet desperation of so many.
Amy Hohn brings out the small-minded nastiness of Bayliss’ wife Sue, while Emily Kunkel and Grant Fletcher Prewitt portray the simple-minded but genial neighbors Lydia and Frank Lubey.
All My Sons resonates as strongly in this troubled time in American history as it did when it propelled Miller to fame, fortune and controversy 70 years ago. It makes you think and wonder how you yourself fit into an imperfect world.
Play: All My Sons
Company: Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Venue: Browning Mainstage, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
Dates: Through January 29
Tickets: $18-$81.50; contact 968-4925 or www.repstl.org
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Jerry Naunheim Jr.