Review: Tampa Repertory Theatre's Riveting Production of Arthur Miller's ALL MY SONS

It Runs Thru June 18th (Father's Day!)

By: Jun. 06, 2023
Review: Tampa Repertory Theatre's Riveting Production of Arthur Miller's ALL MY SONS

It’s time to reevaluate Arthur Miller’s ALL MY SONS.  For decades, the 1947 play that originally put the playwright on the map remains a distant third to his more famous colossi of the 1940s and 1950s, Death of a Salesman and The Crucible.   ALL MY SONS has always been the red-headed stepchild in that American trilogy…the odd play out, the one grudgingly mentioned more for its inspiring the name of the group Twenty-One Pilots than for its gripping content. 

But watching ALL MY SONS finally and fully realized at Tampa Rep, I realized that it shouldn’t be so easily pushed to the side and blindly considered a distant third; it should be strongly mentioned in the same breath as Miller’s greatest triumphs.  It’s taut, emotionally charged, and its drama is just as explosive as the world of Willy Loman and John Proctor.  In some ways, and in certain scenes, maybe more so.  Death of a Salesman is certainly more stylized and a more memorable denunciation and crucifixion of the American Dream, while The Crucible packs a bigger punch for modern audiences who keep hearing the phrase “witch hunt” uttered by desperate politicians. But ALL MY SONS is something else--more intimate, more emotionally raw, more human.  It, along with perhaps Tennessee WilliamsCat on a Hot Tin Roof, may be the ultimate father-son drama of the past century.

ALL MY SONS deals with a reckoning of sorts, a coming of age for a young man who refuses to face life’s many realities.  It’s a year after World War II, and Chris Keller looks up to his father, Joe, the way a child does--as his personal, idealized hero.  His father has been exonerated for the crime of knowingly shipping defective cylinder heads from his factory to the miliary, a crime that killed almost two dozen young men (and a crime that another man, Joe’s neighbor, took the fall for and is now rotting in prison).  The only reason the community forgives Joe, or at least faux-believes he is not guilty, is that his son--forthright, honest, no bullshit Chris--believes his father. Everyone seems to be in some sort of denial, including Joe’s tormented wife, Kate, who believes or forces herself to believe that their other son, Larry, who was supposedly killed in the war is actually still alive. 

The brilliance of the written work is that the first act is pretty much a red herring.  Instead of the father’s crimes of the past, it focuses on Chris wanting to ask his dead brother’s girlfriend, Ann, to marry him, something Chris’ mother in particular might protest.  Ann is not just any young lady; she’s also the daughter of the man who went to prison for Joe’s crimes.  The play's three acts become a mystery of sorts that slowly unveils itself to the gut-wrenching finale.

The play leads us to that moment when the Keller family and friends must confront the facts and contend with the truth that this man, this pillar of the community, this loving dad, may be knowingly responsible for the deaths of twenty-one pilots. The father tells Chris that he did it for his family and to save the business, but Chris will have none of that: “Is that as far as your mind can see, the business?  What is that, the world—the business? What the hell do you mean, you did it for me?  Don’t you have a country?  Don’t you live in the world? What the hell are you? You’re not even an animal, no animal kills his own, what are you?” And it’s Chris’ epiphany, his seeing his father for who he really is, that is at the heart of this story.

I have seen ALL MY SONS several times onstage, but I have never experienced it fully realized before.  It’s not the first show where I could see greatness behind a less-than-stellar production.  For example, the first time I attended the tale of Sweeney Todd decades ago, it was a mediocre production at best, but I could see and hear the genius of Stephen Sondheim’s work itself; afterwards, hearing the OBC recording and finally seeing some shattering productions of it, I now place it at the very top, my all-time favorite musical.  It’s similar with ALL MY SONS.  In the previous productions, I could sense the powerful, heartbreaking script beneath the tepid delivery of the actors or passable-at-best staging, but the play had not been given the A+ treatment.  Until now.

Tampa Rep’s ALL MY SONS finally gives us a production that this tremendous script deserves. 

All of the performances in this are worthy, no matter the size of the role, with all of the actors bringing the best of their best.  At one point in the show, Kate says “We all got hit by the same lightning,” and that seems true of this electric cast.  Galvanizing work.

Even the small child in the show, eleven-year-old Jacob Pham as Bert, does strong work, with superb projection.  And he doesn’t just stand there waiting for the next line, as so many young actors often do, but is always in character, even walking on a bench like it’s a tight rope.  He’s a complete natural and has already found a home on the stage.

Jonathan O’Brien is fine as the Keller neighbor, Frank Lubey, and Noa Friedman as his wife, Lydia, sparks the stage the brief times she enters the backyard of the Keller house.  Drew Brown shows surprising depth in the role of the other neighbor, Dr. Bayliss, and Calee Gardner is quite wonderful as his wife, Sue, looking like a young Jean Smart from “Designing Women.” Ms. Gardner has a scene at the start of Act 2 where she shows off her acting chops with the two-faced nature of the role--that person who smiles at your face but attacks you the moment you leave the room.

Pauline Lara gets her moments to showcase sheer turmoil as Ann Deever, and it may take awhile but she finally brings it emotionally.  She radiates beauty the moment she walks onstage in a golden dress, and she has a smile that seems to outshine that dress.  She has to reach down deep because the character must balance so much thrown at her at once--the death of a boyfriend at war; being asked to wed his brother; her own lawyer-brother, George, opening her eyes to the reality of the Keller patriarch; and her love for Chris.  She has to juggle all of these storylines as a key piece in this dramatic game of chess. And Ms. Lara eventually holds her own with the heavyweights in the cast. 

But there are four performances in ALL MY SONS that rival the best work seen anywhere in recent years and will have audiences talking long after leaving the USF Theater. 

James Putnam brings a Red Kanga energy to the play as George, whose father took the entire rap for Mr. Keller’s crimes.  He doesn’t appear until Act 2, but what an entrance! Clad in black from his jacket to the tip of his pastor-like hat, he’s like a volcanic Minister of Death (think of Hazel Motes in Wise Blood or Royal Dano as the harbinger of death in The Right Stuff).  He seethes, his face pulsating red; he paces frantically like a trapped animal ready to unleash its fury.  He holds back, lets go but stops himself, constantly starting to raise his voice but bringing it back down to a deadly whisper.  His sneering silences seem lethal. It’s a feverish performance, and seeing the damage that George has gone through--that Joe’s hidden crime has wrecked the Deever family and ultimately has broken this young man’s soul--it’s profoundly heartbreaking to watch. 

As Kate, the matriarch of the Keller clan who teeters between the fragility of loss and the persuasive strength of denial, Emilia Sargent has outdone herself.  Just when you think you’ve seen Ms. Sargent’s best work, she ups it a notch and gives you even gutsier, more thrilling work than you can imagine. When reality inevitably comes collapsing down on Kate, she falls to the ground in an avalanche of heartache and sorrow.  And we believe every moment of hers, not just the gut-punching ferocity of her refusing to surrender to the crushing truth but in the little moments, the details.  At one point, Joe’s suspenders have moved out of place and she, his loving wife, fixes it for him.  These are the moments that matter, that connect them, so that the ending carries that much more weight. Ms. Sargent is a renowned acting instructor in our area, but her best classroom may be here, on the stage, watching this performance: So real, so incredibly vulnerable, wounded and yet formidable as her world, like the pilots killed by her husband and like her son lost in war, crashes.

There was never a doubt that Ned Averill-Snell would shine as Joe Keller.  He’s the perfect Arthur Miller flawed everyman.  He was born to play these types of parts, as anyone who saw his impeccable work as Eddie Carbone in Tampa Rep’s A View from the Bridge years ago can attest. He’s equally brilliant here, so in the moment and so connected with the playwright’s words that we understand his plight, even though we are also horrified by it.  “A father is a father!” he screams out at one point, and then stops himself.  We understand his pure love for his son and his survival instincts; lying to himself proves way too easy for him.  He’s a master at self-preservation, but in not facing the truth of his deeds, he’s also that rare breed: A likable, successful loser. (Like Willy Loman, Joe Keller thinks that being liked is of central importance in life.) He may win in business and in the lying game, but he fails in the morality department and, eventually, loses it all, especially his family that he was ironically trying to protect all along (or so he says).  Mr. Averill-Snell leads this cast in a performance that knots your stomach and doesn’t let go.  His battle with his son, Chris, at the end of Act 2 ranks with some of the most powerful scenes you are likely to experience.

Last but far from least, Harrison Baxley comes into his own as a leading man in the role of Chris, whose arch we follow throughout the play.  I like how Mr. Baxley takes his time and doesn’t play the large emotional moments too soon (the entire cast are aces at this).  His journey is our journey--from the awkward child-like way he expresses his love for Ann in Act 1 to his finally becoming a man when confronting his father at the end of Act 2.  He’s so likable, so grounded, that we see what the community sees in him--a 20th Century Lot, perhaps the one moral man in this amoral world.  This is Mr. Baxley's last performance before he leaves our area for graduate school, and what a swan song!

This production of ALL MY SONS wins in all fronts. Steven K. Mitchell’s wondrous set design doesn’t overwhelm the intimate theater but allows the actors the room to grow, wither and showcase some of the best-written roles of all-time.  Jayce Bertucelli’s lighting underscores important moments but doesn’t engulf. Meli Mossey’s costumes emphasize the characters’ personalities (Ann’s golden dress; George’s black coat and hat) and are appropriate for the post-War 1940s. I appreciate the use of vintage newspapers in the opening scene, and the sound design certainly works. The use of the song “Such Great Heights” at the start is certainly effective, but the show is so strong that it doesn’t actually need it (it may seem like piling on).

Best of all is Christopher Marshall’s outstanding direction.  The pace is perfect--not once did I think of glancing at a watch, or what I wanted for dinner, or whatever we do when our mind strays, which sometimes can happen with lesser works. From the opening crashing sound of airplanes to the final embrace of two of the characters, we have doubled-down in the story 100%. He has guided a cast that gives these words meaning and that guts us, the audience, with the power of their performances.

The show ends its run on June 18th, which also happens to be Father’s Day.  ALL MY SONS with its father-son dramatics centering on the moral failures of the dad may be a peculiar Father’s Day present.  But with this top-tiered cast and this spot-on production, there may be no greater gift. 

Photo Credit: Ashley Emrick

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