Before Arthur Miller's 1949 hit, "Death of a Salesman," came "All My Sons" in 1947. The play feels a lot like a rehearsal for its more famous cousin as a "common" American family deals with its troubles through denial and delusion until the truth explodes the myths.
Yet "All My Sons" still packs an emotional wallop in this polished production at The Rep, the professional theater company of Point Park University, and it wears an especially fine glow through the intelligent direction of the playwright's son, Robert. Once again, we purists can sigh, "A well-written play by somebody who can use the English language."
Mr. Miller has drawn strong performances from Philip Winters and Penelope Lindblom, veteran actors and Point Park instructors playing Joe and Kate Keller, the couple facing tragedy of Ibsen-like proportions. Joe is a hearty self-made rich guy who refuses to shake his working-class roots, while hard-working housewife Kate refuses to believe that her youngest son, Larry, died in World War II.
Ms. Lindblom and Mr. Winters work comfortably together as a long-married couple who've learned to keep the bickering at a low simmer to avoid big blowups. "I wear the pants in the family and she uses the belt," Joe jokes.
Kate, though, dances perilously close to the end of her rope, insisting that after three years MIA, Larry will walk through the front door any day and all will be right with her world. With her nervous fluttering and forced smiles of desperation, Ms. Lindblom both breaks your heart and surprises you with her ferocious defense of her husband.
And Joe needs defending. Partner in a machine shop with Steve Deever, the two went to prison for manufacturing defective cylinder heads for fighter planes that crashed, killing more than 20 pilots. But Joe appealed and was released, free to restore his business and wealth while his former partner languished in prison. Joe enjoys the restored neighborliness of his Midwestern community, another illusion that playwright Miller devised as an antidote to the Norman Rockwell fantasy of wonderful small-town life.
While his neighbors enjoy the card games and hospitality of the Kellers, they harbor doubts about his innocence. Next door live Dr. Bayliss (David Cabot) and wife Sue (Amy Landis), who have their own marriage problems, another cynical view Miller takes of relationships between men and women. The Baylisses live in the former home of the Deevers. Children Ann and George have fled to New York after their father's conviction and both claim Joe Keller is innocent. Now Ann pays a visit home.
She was Larry's intended, but has shifted her hopes to Chris Keller, surviving son who works alongside his father at the machine shop. She knows the truth about Larry's death, a complicated story intertwined with his father's connection to the warplane tragedy. Like the Kellers, she's willing to play along to maintain the facade, even though Kate Keller will hear nothing of marriage between Chris and Ann because of her insistence that Larry is still alive.
Daina Michelle Griffith handles this thankless role with a perpetual look of pained determination. Miller puts his character in an impossible situation when brother George arrives from his father's jail cell to announce that Joe's the real criminal and she must flee the Kellers. Kate Keller and her brother want her to leave (Kate has packed her suitcase for her) but Chris is her last chance at happiness. What's a girl to do?
"All My Sons" lacks the clear, straightforward structure of "Salesman," relying on a soap-opera like melodrama and clunky plot marred by Miller's self-righteousness about right and wrong during war. America may have won the war, but at what price to its soul? he asks.
Chris is the moral center of the play, interpreted with naive confidence by Shaun Cameron Hall, who seems too callow to have been a decorated veteran in bloody battles. There's a spark of chemistry, though, between him and Ms. Griffith, whose character has to coax a little more passion from this Goody Two-Shoe's kisses.
Robert Miller's respectful and careful approach to his father's work, with its emphasis on fathers and sons, reinvigorates "All My Sons" spirit, earnestness and relevance in the American theater. He's aided by a handsome production from Stephanie Mayer-Staley's imaginative, challenging set to Joan Markert's costume design, highlighted by the attractive outfit Ms. Lindblom wears for an abortive night on the town.
All in all, a powerful opening for The Rep's new season and one that those who appreciate the work of Arthur Miller should not miss.
Bob Hoover: email@example.com.