Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, March 2009
Arthur Miller’s 1947 tragedy All My Sons was his first commercial success. The next play of his staged was Death of a Salesman. Then he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
The “un-American” ideas that Miller presented in these two plays, and many others, had to do with the gaping holes in the “American Dream” as couched solely in capitalism and consumerism.
Joe Keller (Edward Cating) has managed to evade the consequences and the responsibility for selling defective airplane engine parts to the Air Force during World War II, causing several planes to crash and American lives to be lost. He has pinned the blame on his former partner and neighbor, Steve Deever, who is currently serving a jail sentence for the crime. The family business is booming, and Joe, his wife Kate (Linda White), and their surviving son Chris (Conor Moroney) live a picture perfect upper-middle class life in Norman Rockwell’s middle America.
The Keller and Deever children – Ann (Samantha Cullen) and George (Frank LaFrazia) – grew up together, along with Frank (Sean McHugh) and Lydia Lubey (Cynthia Saunders Quinones). Ann and Larry were engaged, and at the start of the play she returns to her hometown for the first time since her father’s incarceration, at Chris Keller’s invitation. Her childhood home across the street in now owned by Dr. Jim Bayliss (Mitch Bucciarelli), his wife Sue (Jeanne Matthew) and their children.
Kate won’t accept that Larry isn’t coming home. Chris and Ann want to get married, but just about everyone secretly opposes their union, no matter what they say to their faces.
Miller does a superb job of building up sympathy and affection for the Keller family and Ann Deever in the first act of the play, so that as their world begins to unravel you cannot see them as good or evil, but simply as human. That is how a true tragedy is constructed.
Cating has wanted to direct All My Sons for decades, and began the process of constructing this production many months ago. But when he was unable to find an actor to play Joe, he stepped into the role himself. Since Joe is on stage for a majority of the play, Cating couldn’t remain as the sole director and Alexia Trainor stepped in to collaborate.
So this production is a true collaborative effort by the local, volunteer company that forms the core of Main Street Stage, and it is an excellent one. Cating, White, Moroney, and Cullen all give strong, centered performances, and Juliana von Haubrich’s wonderful set – beautifully painted by von Haubrich, Jaye Fox, and Andrew Davis – and Jeremy Kerr’s sharp lighting and sound design combine to create a world that quickly envelopes the audience. The close quarters at Main Street Stage create a sense of intimacy that brings you directly in to the Keller’s world.
I was also impressed by the attention to detail in hair and make-up, details which often go by the wayside in community theatre because they are highly specialized skills and their cost is the straw that would break the back of the camel that is a shoestring budget. White and Matthew sported particularly impressive period hairstyles.
The wonderful thing about excellent community theatre is that you get to understand fully the miracle of acting. When you go to Barrington Stage or the BTF you know you are going to see Professional Actors who have been culled by a highly competitive audition process. You don’t know them and you accept them in whatever guise they may present themselves. But when you see the folks you meet in the supermarket or work with on community projects up on that stage transforming themselves into completely different people, you get it. Your friends and neighbors are talented artists.
White and Cating have proven their acting chops in several previous area productions, but they are especially good here. They bring the Kellers’ marriage and family dynamics into sharp focus. White brings Kate’s strength of will to the fore in what could become a stereotypical June Cleaver suburban mom role.
Moroney gives a stellar performance as the “Good Son.” Miller spends considerable time exploring Chris’ war wounds, which are psychological rather than physical. Here is a piercing portrait of our “Greatest Generation” when they were young. Now we wave flags and salute their bravery and dedication, as well we should, but Miller lets us hear how disillusioned these young men were when they returned home, how, even with all the parades and honors and financial benefits they were accorded, they recognized war for the pointless and soul-destroying experience it has always been.
Cullen melts your heart as the young woman who has waited three years, not for the man she was engaged to, but for his brother. We discover her reasons in Act III. LaFrazia makes a strong entrance as her war-torn brother George, who comes to the Keller home after his first visit to their father in prison. But then, somewhere, he too is lulled into the cozy façade of happy family life that the Kellers have so carefully constructed, and I missed that transition. LaFrazia made me understand George’s anger and despair, and his longing for the uncomplicated pre-war days of his youth, but I never understood why, even for a minute, George allowed himself to go backward instead of forward.
I was warned before I went to see All My Sons that it was a good play, but out of date. That advice was dead wrong. All My Sons is a perfect play, meticulously structured, and painfully timely in its message.
In a recent Berkshire Eagle interview with Jeffrey Borak, Cating is quoted as saying: "I don't think this is a play about the morality of evil. I think it's about willful negligence, about what happens when we don't pay attention to the evils before us. Original sin in this play is negligence."
Gee, does that sound familiar? Just how did we get into this current economic crisis? How did we allow ourselves to be convinced to send our sons and daughters to Iraq? And notice the cultural similarities between 1947 and 2009. Miller’s play is staunchly anti-war, as the title implies, and therefore “un-American.” It was the war, not Joe Keller’s 100 or so defective engine parts, that killed all our sons and ripped our families and communities apart. And it was the war that saved us from the Great Depression and made people like Joe Keller hometown heroes. They created jobs were there had been none. They enabled the post-war economic boom that created the American Dream of the 1950’s. We are still clinging to that dream, although we were roused from our slumbers several decades ago. The media and our capitalist society still tells us, and we still believe that, it is that dream world, not the waking reality, that is our goal and ideal.
There are a few minor flaws in this production. McHugh is too loud and Bucciarelli is, as Jerry Seinfeld would say, a low-talker. But this is, after all, community theatre and these gentlemen are cast in minor roles. Matthew and Quinones fare better. Matthew is a better back-stabbing bitch than she is a nag, so she shines in her riveting Act II scene with Cullen.
And while I adored von Haubrich’s set there was one thing that bugged the hell out of me. The set very cleverly creates spaces that represent the façade of the Keller home, its front porch and front hallway, the front yard and patio, and even a sense of the surrounding neighborhood – street, backyard, driveway, etc. This is no mean feat in the tiny, narrow stage space at Main Street Stage. But there is only one upstage exit/entrance and there should be two. There may well be some architectural impediment backstage that prevents this, but I was constantly annoyed when, in order to exit into the house, the actors ended up walking to the driveway. Granted they took a different route, but the final impression was that they were going outdoors instead of in.
I am happy to report that the first two performance of All My Sons were sold out and the third performance, which I attended, had a very full house who gave the four leading players an immediate standing ovation. Standing "O's" are over-used these days, but this was a real one, not an obligatory one. That audience really wanted to tell those actors how moved they had been by their performances.
You only have five more chances to see this wonderful production. Call the box office NOW!
"All My Sons" at Main Street Stage, 57 Main Street in North Adams, MA, will be presented March 27-29 and April 2-4 at 8 p.m with a matinee at 3 p.m. on April 5. The show runs two and a half hours with one intermission and is not suitable for children under 13. Tickets are $20 ($15 seniors; $10 students) and can be reserved online at www.mainstreetstage.org or by calling (413) 663-3240.
As a special treat for the run of All My Sons, Main Street Stage and Gramercy Bistro are pleased to announce Dinner and a Show!, a $50.00 per person, fixed price, all inclusive package consisting of: Ticket to All My Sons, A three course meal, consisting of an appetizer, choice of two entrées, and a dessert, gratuity included. Seating is at 6 pm on performance nights, and any time after 5 pm on the evening of the matinée. Reserve the package by calling Gramercy Bistro at (413) 663-5300.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2009