BWW Review: ALL MY SONS: An Entreaty To Be Better
All My Sons
Written by Arthur Miller, Directed by Joanna Weir Ouston; Stage Manager, Sr. Mercy Minor; Lighting Design, Scott Stipetic; Sound Design, Daniel Pfeiffer, Rachel McKendree, Sr. Phoenix Catlin, Mike Hale; Scenic Design, Peter Haig, Charity Spatzeck-Olsen, Mary Virginia Smith; Costume Design, Gail Gibson, N. Sharon Tingley, Karlene Albro, Belinda Schmitt, Michelle Rich, Holly Dubocq, Jackie Hempel; Properties, Sr. Huai-Kuang Miao, Sr. Abigail Reid
CAST: Christopher Kanaga, Sr. Danielle Dwyer, Ryan Winkles, Stephanie Haig, Peter Haig, Brad Lussier, N. Kate Shannon, Kyle Norman, Heather Norman, Justin McKendree, Bob Rich, Michelle Rich, Br. Richard Cragg
Performances through November 20 by Elements Theatre Company at Paraclete House, Rock Harbor, Orleans, MA; Box Office 508-240-2400 or www.elementstheatre.org
Arthur Miller wrote All My Sons in 1947, a vantage point from which he could look back at World War II America and examine profiteering, the loss of life, and how the American Dream became a nightmare for one family. Set in an Ohio backyard in August, 1946, everything that appears normal and mundane on the surface is a shakily-constructed facade waiting to crumble when secrets are revealed. Seventy years later, there is still much to be learned from this compelling, Tony Award-winning play, and the Elements Theatre Company production doesn't shy away from the ugly truths or raw emotions embedded in Miller's story.
Guest director Joanna Weir Ouston, a teacher and director at Oxford School of Drama, returns to Orleans to guide the stellar cast of Elements artists whose work is truly worthy of the word ensemble. The drama concerns the Keller family - Joe (Christopher Kanaga), his wife Kate (Sr. Danielle Dwyer), and son Chris (Ryan Winkles) - and the neighbors on either side - Dr. Jim Bayliss (Brad Lussier) and his wife Sue (N. Kate Shannon), and Frank and Lydia Lubey (Kyle and Heather Norman). Former neighbor Ann Deever (Stephanie Haig) is now Chris' love interest and visiting on his invitation, and her brother George (Peter Haig) unexpectedly arrives late in the day with unwelcome news. An opening montage crafted by Weir Ouston showcases the convivial nature of the families before the war, searing the happy, innocent images onto our minds' eyes, in contrast to what will eventually transpire.
Miller got the idea for the play from a newspaper story about corruption at an aeronautical plant in Ohio where senior corporate people had conspired with army inspection officers to certify faulty engines for use in military aircraft. There was a lot of money to be made producing parts for the military, but the pressure was intense to get the job done quickly. Miller took the theme as the core of All My Sons, but expanded it into a morality tale. Joe Keller's plant produced faulty parts, shipped them to the Army Air Force for use in combat planes, and 21 servicemen died when their planes went down. However, it was Joe's business partner Steve Deever who took the fall and went to prison, although a cloud of suspicion lingers over the Keller household. Tangled in the web of blame and responsibility, the Keller's elder son Larry is MIA and presumed dead by all but his mother. What, if any, connection does his death have to the faulty equipment? That and other questions loom, steadily raising the pressures within the family, like steam in a sealed pot that must be vented or explode.
Act one introduces the characters, maps the relationships, and lays the groundwork for later disclosures. Although it may be intentional to lull the audience into thinking that the Kellers are enjoying their leisure as the fruit of Joe's labors, the languid pacing makes the hour-long act play longer and I had the feeling that I was waiting for someone or something that was inexplicably delayed. Fortunately, developments are much more fleet-footed in the second act when George shows up after visiting his father. Each character has a reaction based on their willingness to accept or deny what George has to say, which is informed by what they already know or believe to be true, but relationships are inexorably altered as the drama builds to its explosive denouement.
All My Sons is one of Miller's great writing achievements and it requires strong performances to plumb its depths. Sr. Danielle Dwyer reaches unbelievable depths in her portrayal of Kate Keller who, at times, seems irrational, yet is truly the wise one who understands exactly what is at stake if truth were to be snatched from the bonds of her denial. She makes us feel the pain and strength of this matriarch who bends, but refuses to buckle in the face of overwhelming evidence of a parent's worst nightmare. Kate is the heart and soul of this damaged family and serves as a fulcrum on which no amount of force can budge her from her stance. Her journey is often difficult to watch, but Dwyer compels us to give her our unwavering attention.
Christopher Kanaga gives a multi-faceted performance as Joe Keller, putting on a happy face even as he struggles to come to terms with his culpability and denial. Kanaga makes it clear that Joe loves his family, but doesn't always choose the best actions to show it. This plays out especially well in his scenes with son Chris (Ryan Winkles) who is set up as an idealist and the moralist in the family. Winkles gives Chris an appropriate earnestness, and is sweetly tender and coy proclaiming his love for Ann. He is convincingly dismayed when the unraveling begins and his simmering anger builds into a throat-searing rage when the final invective is launched.
Stephanie Haig displays a wide range as Ann, from her soft, loving scenes with Chris, to the conflicted emotions she feels when Chris and her brother quarrel, to showing steely resolve with Kate. As George, Peter Haig seethes and exhibits feelings of urgency to get his sister away from the Keller clan. When he softens his stance, the turn seems rather sudden and unsubstantiated, but his later reversal appears genuine. The rest of the cast provides solid support. Brad Lussier is the reliable family friend and voice of reason as Dr. Jim Bayliss, and N. Kate Shannon makes his no-nonsense wife Sue a stern taskmistress. Kyle Norman and Heather Norman are good neighbors who provide a bit of levity and cheer, and Justin McKendree has an honest-to-goodness quality as young Bert, the neighborhood kid who looks up to Joe. Additional company members are Bob Rich, Michelle Rich, and Br. Richard Cragg.
The Elements design team invites us into the homey world of the play with a 1920s house and an evocative backyard filled with garden furniture and a trellised arbor, costumes and hairstyles true to the post-WW II era, and 1940s music. Weir Ouston directs the play with an understanding, sympathetic view of each of the characters and their actions. She puts forth the playwright's challenge to the audience to consider how any of us might act in the same circumstances. Judging by the somber vibe in the room during the post-show talkback, the play's moral themes weighed heavily in the aftermath of the 2016 election. One of the most disturbing facts about All My Sons is that it is based on an actual war-time event, and it stirs up thoughts about profiteering by large corporations in other, more recent wars. Thematically, the juxtaposition of the self-sacrifice required by those who served and the financial killings made by some who supplied tools for the effort raises the question of why they fought the war. Was it to maintain the status quo, or was it for the greater good? And aren't these the very same questions being asked today as another generation of young people will be forever changed by the wars they are fighting? In the final scene, Chris admonishes his mother, "You can be better! Once and for all you can know there's a universe of people outside and you're responsible to it..." Let us all take those words to heart.
Photo credit: Elements Theatre Company (Sr. Danielle Dwyer, Christopher Kanaga)