If this sounds like a melodrama, that is because Arthur Miller wrote one. All My Sons was very much a product of the dramatist’s times and politics.
All My Sons by Arthur Miller. Directed by Julianne Boyd. Staged at the Barrington Stage Company, BSC Mainstage, Pittsfield, MA, through August 4.
All My Sons, Arthur Miller’s post-war drama and first Broadway success premiered in 1947—before Death of a Salesman or The Crucible or A View from the Bridge. It is one of the most revered and consistently revived of Miller’s plays (see Arts Fuse Editor Bill Marx’s review of the 2009 Huntington Theatre Company production); adapted for radio, film, and television; studied and performed in high schools and universities around the world.
Miller has replaced Mark Twain as a staple of sophomore English; students take to the far shorter text of Death of a Salesman more than to Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Actors, directors, and mainstream theater audiences flock to Miller’s work. So I expected to agree with Barrington Stage’s artistic director Julianne Boyd, who directed this production of All My Sons, to find the play “more timely than ever.”
It’s an American Classic, after all. A traditional, three-act, family drama that offers 10 actors (four of them women) a chance to pull out all the stops. But as I sat watching them for two hours and 15 minutes, I found myself thinking about caricature rather than character; Archie and Veronica comics instead of the classics. I understand that some soldiers are still missing in action, other veterans are returning from deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that military contractors are making out like bandits. I considered Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and Bernie Madoff to be updates of All My Sons‘ tragic anti-hero, businessman Joe Keller. But All My Sons still comes off as a relic and Boyd’s directorial choice—more congenial to musical comedy than straight drama—further distanced me from emotional engagement.
For those of you who’ve forgotten or never knew the story, All My Sons is based on a newspaper account of an Ohio manufacturer who, during the Second World War, chose personal gain for himself and his family over responsibility to his country, and shipped defective military equipment to American forces abroad instead of taking a loss by correcting the flaws. His war-time crime was reported to authorities by his own daughter. Miller turned the daughter of this Ohio newspaper into Ann, a prospective daughter-in-law, and imagined a drama, based on Greek tragedy, that centers around willful blindness, loyalty, and betrayal. Miller’s father is driven to suicide by the revelation of his wartime perfidy and his son’s demand that he be “better.”
There is no curtain. The play opens with a traditional set that evokes a Norman Rockwell scene of Americana (back yard, clapboard siding, screen door, picket fence) signaling a directorial choice doggedly faithful to the precise instructions in Miller’s script (“The house is two stories high and has seven rooms. It would have cost perhaps fifteen thousand in the early twenties when it was built. Now it is nicely painted, looks tight and comfortable. . . .”) The casting and costumes of the 10 actors who portray the Keller family and their neighbors are also meticulously faithful, as are the lighting and sound design.
As a result, there’s no relief from the heavy-handed exposition of Act I, which fills us in on the relationships between the neighbors in this American town while strongly insinuating the dramatic conflict: Joe Keller’s elder son Larry has been reported as missing in action for three years; his mother Kate refuses to believe Larry is dead and has asked a neighbor to draw up astrological proof. Larry’s pre-war girlfriend Annie Deever (the girl-next-door and daughter of Joe’s former business partner Steve Deever) believes he has been killed and wants to marry Larry’s younger brother Chris. Their marriage would destroy Kate’s belief that Larry is alive; eventually, Annie’s arrival in the Kellers’ back yard triggers a chain of events that reveals a darker, more insidious reality.
If this sounds like a melodrama, that is because Miller wrote one. All My Sons was very much a product of Miller’s times and politics. In the late 1940s, war casualties were still being mourned by most American families. “Informing,” thanks to the House Committee on Un-American Activities, was prevalent, ruining lives and careers and dividing families and friends. The playwright, who courageously refused to inform on friends and colleagues whom he knew to be Communists when he was called up by HUAC, is widely admired as much for his ethics as for his plays. Miller’s refusal to compromise contrasted starkly with others in the theater and movie world, including that of his friend, director Elia Kazan (to whom All My Sons is dedicated, who directed the premiere and “named names” to HUAC).
What was admirable in Miller’s real life, however, doesn’t hold up so well in the theater. Ideology rather than multifaceted characterizations drives the script. The dramatic situations seem artificial. What’s more, misogyny runs through it all. The four women characters hold even less interest and complexity for the viewer than for the men in their lives. The doctor’s wife and neighbor (shrewishly portrayed by Pilar Witherspoon) is the most crudely drawn, viewing her physician husband as a meal-ticket and shooting down his dreams of becoming a (poorly-paid) medical researcher. Lizbeth Mackay as the self-deluding, maternal Mrs. Keller and Rebecca Brooksher as a perky Ann Deever seem smaller rather than larger-than-life. Jeff McCarthy as the hale, hearty, and hypocritical businessman Joe Keller comes off as more of a pathetic than a tragic figure, particularly in the slow and clunky Act I.
I found this to be a flat and emotionally uninvolving production, despite the meticulous attention to detail and the professionalism of actors, director, and design team. The only character in All My Sons who drew me in was George Deever, Annie’s lawyer brother, played by Matthew Carlson. Forced to reconcile complicated loyalties, this soldier/son’s anger and confusion comes across loud and clear, transcending the limitations of a very dated script. Is it time to re-evaluate this play’s place in the theater canon, I wondered. Or have other directors found ways to make this arthritic warhorse gallop?
Helen Epstein is the author of Joe Papp: An American Life and other books about the arts.