Robert Miller was born toward the middle of the 1947 run of Arthur Miller's "All My Sons," the playwright's first Broadway success. The synergy of events comes full circle this month, when the playwright's son returns to the Pittsburgh Playhouse, where he previously has directed his father's "A View From the Bridge" and "Death of a Salesman."
"All My Sons," the World War II-era play about a family facing the consequences of wartime deeds, landed as a universal wake-up call to social responsibility. Themes of family loyalty vs. profiteering and crime and punishment seem as fresh as today's headlines.
"It never goes away," Mr. Miller said of "All My Sons," which had recent all-star revivals on Broadway (2008-09) and in London (2010). "I don't know if we've had a time when we weren't close to, or in a war somewhere in the last 40 years. If it's not about war parts, it's about something else where someone is getting rich off the neck, or even the skin, of someone else. And it's about family and secrets."
Even after seeing many productions of the play over the years, Mr. Miller has been making discoveries as he readies the play for opening night with The REP, the professional company of Point Park University.
"What I found to be surprising, now that I'm close to it again, is the attention to craft, the structure. It's devoid of metaphors; it sets you up on a track where you know the characters are headed for a fall, as with 'View From the Bridge,' so it's all about how you are going to get from here to there, and it's quite extraordinary how he does it."
The director speaks of his father alternately as "Arthur" or "dad," and never shies from mention of his famous father.
Mr. Miller, 66, the first-born son of the playwright -- who divorced his mother, Mary Grace Slattery, to marry Marilyn Monroe -- grew up in New York but has been a mostly West Coast guy in a career that includes directing commercials and rock videos. He worked with his father when he produced the movie version of "The Crucible."
"I have an affinity for his work and am familiar with his voice. The dialogue in the play -- he talked like that," Robert Miller said. When the note is false, it sticks out for me. It's different than for a play by O'Neill or Stoppard. With Arthur, I know when it's right in the middle of the note."
A long, friendly association with the The REP and its artistic director, Ron Lindblom, have led him to a residency with the company and a number of directing assignments, including Eugene O'Neill's "Ah, Wilderness!"
He has been here often enough that he has developed a routine from his perch in Shadyside, his home away from home while working with The REP.
"I know where to take my dry-cleaning, and to go to Prantl's bakery and breakfast at Pamela's and get my New York Times. I have it all sort of dialed in. Having been here as long as I have, I even know halfway how to get outside of this zone and Downtown. I've made a lot of friends here, mostly through the extended family of the Playhouse, and I've made some friends at the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild, with Marty [Ashby] and Bill Strickland. I have some kind of roots here."
He got to know Mr. Strickland when they explored making a movie on the Guild leader's work with local youth through involvement with the arts.
"Bill's story is just a fabulous story. He's saving lives every day. It never quite came together, but we have remained friends, and I'm so impressed with what they've done over there -- really good guys doing really good work."
During one visit to Pittsburgh, Mr. Miller met August Wilson at a cigar shop in Market Square and was taken on a personal tour of the Hill District. He noted some obvious differences between the late playwright's work and that of his father's, but said what they had in common was an attention to language and craft.
Mr. Miller's recent collaborations with The REP include the 2010 stage premiere and subsequent filming by Point Park students of "The Umbrella Man," in which a grieving father turns to conspiracy theorists and becomes obsessed with a mysterious figure spotted just before the assassination of John F. Kennedy. He brought the script by brothers Michael and Joe Grasso to Mr. Lindblom's attention and produced the project, which was filmed here and in Dallas.
"All My Sons" was a project that Mr. Miller and Mr. Lindblom had discussed over the years, but it was local actor and Point Park teacher Philip Winters who got the ball rolling.
"Ron had a conversation with Phil Winters, who's playing the lead, and Phil said, 'If you ever want to do that play, I think I might be ready for it. I'm old enough, and sort of get it now, and I think I'd be right for it.' Ron told me about this conversation, so we pulled the trigger on it."
The REP's production features Mr. Winters as Joe Keller, a family man whose business partner has been jailed for selling faulty airplane parts to the military, and Penelope Lindblom plays his wife, Kate, who is holding onto hope that her MIA son will be found. Shaun Cameron Hall portrays son Chris and Daina Michelle Griffith is Ann, the partner's daughter and the woman Chris wants to marry. Justin Fortunato plays Ann's brother, George.
The emotional impact of the story was being felt by the cast and creative team in rehearsals, said Mr. Miller, explaining, "Even the stage manager or the lighting director, we get to the end of the play, and everyone needs a Kleenex."
"It's not sappy melodrama -- well, it's a little bit melodrama, intentionally -- but it just moves you, and it makes you think. I just think it's a full-course meal in the theater."
Sharon Eberson: email@example.com or 412-263-1960. First Published September 4, 2013 4:00 AM