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,
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.