Any long and bruising campaign season relies on the concept of the American Dream, baiting the nation with both the glow of its promise and the threat of its fiery demise. Arthur Miller’s talent for carefully wielding the power of those same extremes in his works was originally refined in All My Sons, the playwright’s first commercial success and winner of the Drama Critics’ Award for Best New Play in 1947. Now playing on the Keegan Theatre’s Church Street stage, director Susan Marie Rhea’s production of Sons wisely taps the weighty (and timely) disillusionment of a country at a crossroads and uses it as a backdrop for Miller’s go-to messages of raw ambition, disappointment, guilt, and forgiveness. The production stops just short of its full potential, but is affecting all the same.
Set in an idyllic small-town backyard in the wake of World War II, the drama uses little in the way of complex set changes or ominous lighting to set the tone. Instead, slow-building emotional arcs and relationships play the predominant role in establishing the script’s layered dynamic. (The increasingly eerie chirp of songbirds juxtaposed against the omission of painful truths helps, too.) The Keller family is damaged, but you wouldn’t know it to look at them. Joe (Kevin Adams) and wife Kate (a steely Sheri S. Herren) are living comfortably despite the loss of their missing-in-action son, Larry, and Joe’s tainted wartime involvement in the manufacturing of faulty fighter plane parts. Joe was exonerated of all charges, but when his other son, Chris (Kevin Hasser), invites Annie (Brianna Letourneau), Larry’s former sweetheart and the daughter of Joe’s imprisoned business partner, to visit, there are plenty of tangled histories, repressed pain, and crushing truths to uncover among the white picket fences and patio furniture.
As Chris, Hasser is a standout. The character’s loyalty and optimistic demeanor belie the darker nuances needed to make his evolution believable, and Hasser’s subtle choices achieve that balance. Playing arguably the most complex role, Adams doesn’t always hit the mark as Joe. Rather than infusing earlier scenes with the kind of delicacy Hasser employs, Adams’s most powerful revelations appear clustered in the play’s latter half, adding to the action’s climactic rise, but lacking the kind of consistent depth Miller’s flawed patriarch deserves. Supporting actors are hit or miss, with Herren’s stubborn and haunted Kate shining in the scenes that ask the most of her dramatically while fading in others, and a gut-wrenching Bradley Foster Smith owning his limited stage time as Annie’s distraught brother George.
The men onstage handle the particularly masculine American pressure of social expectation versus the debilitating weight of an often disappointing reality—a struggle Miller also explored in later works such as Death of a Salesman and The Crucible—admirably. Before the world addressed what we would now call PTSD, when men were expected to maintain a stiff upper lip in the face of battles overseas or within their own consciences, all that pent-up emotion took a definitive toll. And it’s capturing that quietly tortured and sometimes explosive mentality that make Miller’s script so arresting. This interpretation grasps those qualities with a largely steady hand, and it pays off. And in a deeply divided climate that’s hammered what is expected of us as Americans into a sometimes petty oblivion, it’s a fitting reminder of the dangerous consequences of those pressures that can linger for years to come.
All My Sons is playing at the Keegan Theatre’s Church Street Theatre through December 1. Running time is around two and a half hours including one 15-minute intermission. Tickets ($30 to $35) are available through Keegan’s website.