All My Sons is based on the 1943 discovery that for three years Ohio’s Wright Aeronautical Corporation conspired with army inspection officers to approve defective aircraft engines destined for military use. War is big money. This wasn’t the first or last incident of its kind.
A 1997 paper by Maj. Clifford E. Day at the Air Command and Staff College concluded the reliance on soft-skinned Humvees “needlessly put troops in harm’s way without the proper equipment to successfully complete the mission.” In spite of continuing complaints from combat units taking unnecessary casualties, there was no plan to retrofit as late as 2004. Crashes of Boeing 737 Max 8 planes is a recent nonmilitary example of profit and expedition over safety.
Arthur Miller takes on the implicit moral question through intimate observation of once neighboring families, each headed by a partner in a culpable factory. Twenty-one pilots die. Though both men go to prison, Joe Keller gets out on appeal by proving he wasn’t present when the decision to release defective parts was made. There’s gossip, of course, but his company retools and thrives.
We get to know the Kellers on a tandem basis of attention, that of MIA son Larry whose death was long ago accepted by everyone but his mother. Kate Keller (Annette Bening) is so doggedly determined he’s alive, three years later, she keeps his shoes polished. Husband Joe (Tracy Letts) and younger son (and veteran) Chris (Benjamin Walker) haven’t disabused her delusion assuming her too fragile to weather the truth.
Status quo begins a seismic shift with the visit of Ann Deever (Francesca Carpanini), once Larry’s girl, now Chris’s singular choice. (The two have corresponded for years. He invites her.) Though everyone welcomes the young woman who grew up a member of the family, Kate will resolutely do anything to prevent a marriage that acknowledges Larry’s death.
Things are further compounded by the arrival of Ann’s brother, George (Hampton Fuller) who has come to take his sister home against her wishes. Miller’s writing is pull-no-punches terrific. Nothing is simple. Casualties abound.
There was talk at the time of this play’s opening that Arthur Miller was attacking the “American Dream” – of personal gain no matter the cost? Implication even came up when he was later called before the HUAC.
Once again, I disagree with blind casting that goes against period authenticity. Black actors play Dr. Bayliss’s wife and Ann’s brother. This would never happen in an era and locale rife with racism.
Tracy Letts is as wonderful an actor as he is playwright which is saying a great deal. Hidden truths inform everything he presents, everything we see. The perceptive among you will glean signs before revelations. Letts is grounded. Dialogue arrives rooted in thought and feeling.
Annette Bening does an admirable job as the tautly wired Kate, yet we don’t feel for her as we should. There’s something vulnerable missing in portrayal of the formidable woman. Pain is so effectively batted away, we don’t empathize.
George Deever is emphatically credible in Hampton Fluker’s hands. The abrupt transition from unbridled fury to childhood regression with Kate and Joe showcases the actor’s aptitude.
As in most plays of the period, myriad ancillary characters add color, context, and somewhat slow the story’s lift off. Of these, the most worthy actor is Michael Hayden. His Dr. Bayliss, who longs to be doing altruistic research but is pressured to earn good money, is pithy in a second act turn.
Director Jack O’Brian is skilled with kitchen sink dramas. No one makes an illogical move, the stage is well employed, pacing works. Unfortunately, this production only intermittently comes to life. In 1947, Brooks Atkinson called All My Sons “…a pitiless analysis of character that gathers momentum all evening and concludes with both logic and dramatic impact.” We miss gathering momentum here, noting it intellectually, but not with much sympathy.
“…Sure, Larry was my son. But I think to him [the pilots killed] were all my sons. ” Joe Keller
The Keller’s backyard and adjacent houses are manifest by Set Designer Douglas Schmidt with solidity and detail. Angles of conjoining property are adept. Seeing into a kitchen window adds intriguing opportunity. A feel of Midwestern nesting is emphasized by framing foliage.
Natasha Katz’s Lighting Design takes us gently through otherwise increasingly histrionic hours. Jane Greenwood’s Costumes and Tom Watson’s Wigs add comfortable veracity.
Only Fight Director Steve Rankin falls short with an unbelievable push and fall.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Tracy Letts (Joe Keller) and Annette Bening (Kate Keller)
Arthur Miller’s All My Sons
Directed by Jack O’Brian
American Airlines Theatre
227 West 42nd Street
Through June 23, 2019