Despite the reputations of Death of a Salesman and The Crucible, it's doubtful that Arthur Miller ever really topped his first major play, 1947's All My Sons. With the possible exception of his 1964 Incident at Vichy--another neglected work--Miller hasn't marshaled so much power with so little windiness. The current All My Sons at Arizona State University's Paul V. Galvin Playhouse shows that, 50 years later, the play holds up superbly.
This backyard drama of postwar guilt is plainly a young playwright's work. The carpentry of plot movement and revelation becomes obvious at times--Miller follows Eugene Scribe's formula for the "well-made play" almost like a recipe. There are passages which press a young man's idealism into a harshly judgmental tone ("You can be better.")
Yet what one takes away from the play are its passion and unpretentious eloquence. There are lines of simple, heartbreaking beauty ("Don't you have a country? Don't you live in the world?") which still pack a punch. What may be less clear for contemporary audiences is that this play, so straightforward in form, was nonetheless innovative in terms of content. No American dramatist had gone so far toward depicting family denial--the scary psychodrama of people trying to act like everything's all right when everything's clearly all wrong.
Eugene O'Neill scaled tragic heights beyond Miller, but he did so in a stylized way. His characters were so aware of themselves as tragic that they might as well have spoken blank verse. Miller, following Ibsen, let the tragedy simmer under--and at times boil over--the prosaic talk of characters busily keeping up appearances.
Not all of Miller's interpreters have understood this, but Victoria Holloway, director of the ASU production, does. She keeps Joe Keller and his family and neighbors laughing too loudly, smiling too frozenly, joshing too doggedly. Now and then, they abruptly lash out at each other in anger, then as quickly retreat to nervous jocularity. They seem deranged, and yet they don't seem exaggerated from dysfunctional families we've observed in life.
Kate and Joe Keller live in the suburbs ("of an American town") with the younger of their two sons, the idealist Army vet Chris (Jason Kuykendall). The elder, Larry, was a fighter pilot lost off China. It soon becomes clear why Kate, even three years later, can't begin to accept that Larry's dead: His fate is bound up in her mind with her husband's past.
Joe, though his jovial, easygoing manner belies it, is a scandal survivor. Cracked cylinder heads from his factory sent 21 P-40 pilots, Larry not among them, to their deaths. His partner Steve, father of Larry's wife Annie (Sherri Lynn Snyder), went to prison for shipping the defective parts. The play shows how Chris and Annie, who now mean to marry each other, expose their family's interconnected secrets.
The acting is uniformly capable. No one in the cast is weak enough to warrant mention for it, and Randi Klein, as the cynical nurse Sue Bayliss, is even able to sell what is probably Miller's corniest, least convincing scene--asking Annie to take Chris away from the neighborhood before his idealism infects her doctor husband, who wants to do medical research.
The four leads are all outstanding. Ruth Reid, who sounds like Estelle Parsons, gives a controlled, melodrama-free reading of Kate, and there's nothing of the ingenue to Sherri Lynn Snyder's mature, startlingly heartfelt Annie.
Jason Kuykendall doesn't let Chris' callowness make him ridiculous, and he handles the most treacherous passages of Miller's writing--the potentially preachy stuff--with real grace. He honestly seems like a decent young man saying things that are important to him; you never feel like blowing a raspberry when he's holding forth.
Almost inevitably, though, it's David Vining's Joe who hits hardest. Without bluster or heaviness, Vining manages to give us all of Joe's complexities--the geniality and bluff bravado masking the fear and sorrow, the obsessive use of "family" as rationale for ethical blindness, and, most important, the punishing genuineness of his love.
The set, by Catherine White, has only one nod to the stylistic: Etched into the walls and the backdrop are period photos of war brides and young pilots, smiling their tacit j'accuse down at Joe. Like Bradley J. Boute's lights and Jeanne J. Barron's ingenious, disturbing sound design, the setting shows the solid, well-funded competence that characterizes the stagecraft of the ASU subscription series.
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One can always find a few quibbles, but with this production, I could find only one. The big confrontation between Joe and Chris is marred by some fake-looking and unnecessary scuffling. Beyond that, anything that's wrong with this All My Sons--and it's not much--can be traced not to the production but to the author.
Maybe the reason that All My Sons still plays so fresh is that it's unselfconscious. Miller hadn't yet formalized, in essay, his famous theory of the "tragedy of the common man" which guided Salesman. Sad and harrowing as the later play unquestionably is, it never really seemed like a tragedy in the dramatic sense of the word. Willy Loman is never self-aware enough to qualify as a tragic hero; he's just an unhappy old man who destroys himself pointlessly. We pity him, but we don't feel the terror that we are him (even if, indeed, we are).
But who could deny Joe Keller's tragic status? Though he looks like anybody's old neighbor sitting in his yard, he holds human lives in midair. And that is what Miller's getting at--at some point, in some way, we all do. That's frightening, but it's also thrilling--the stuff of true tragedy.
All My Sons continues through Saturday, December 6, at Paul V. Galvin Playhouse at ASU's Nelson Fine Arts Center, 10th Street and Mill in Tempe.