New York City Theater
"All My Sons"
American Airlines Theater
Welcome back, Annette Bening. You’ve been away from the lights of Broadway for far too long.
In a season of great female acting (Elaine May, Ruth Wilson, Glenda Jackson, Laurie Metcalf), Bening gives a fierce, poignant, layered performance in Roundabout Theater’s revival of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons.”
The 2008 revival of the award-wining drama was an abstract Brechtian interpretation. Honoring Miller’s intentions, director Jack O’Brien treats this revival as a domestic tragedy. Dramaturgically conservative but urgent and compelling, attention must be paid to a work whose sense of outrage and morality is as vital today as when it was first produced in 1947.
Set in designer Douglas W. Schmidt’s realistic suburban back yard, naturalistically lit by Natasha Katz with characters wearing Jane Greenwood’s homespun costumes, the work has all the earmarks of the well-made play. Miller emulated and celebrated Henrik Ibsen, the master of that genre, adding elements of Greek tragedy and symbolism.
Miller, who often wrote about flawed father figures, focuses on Joe Keller, who’d spent some time in prison for shipping cracked cylinder heads to the military, causing the deaths of 21 pilots. Exonerated for lack of evidence, he escaped the fate of his business partner and fall guy, Steve Deever, who’s still imprisoned.
Keller’s son, Chris, has invited Deever’s daughter, Ann, who’d been engaged to Larry, the Kellers’ other son. Reported missing in action, Larry is presumed dead by everyone except Kate whose belief that he’ll return causes her to despise the idea that Chris would marry ”Larry’s girl.” A storm’s destruction of a tree planted in Larry’s memory metaphorically confirms Kate’s belief that he must still be alive.
The family’s troubles are fodder for Miller’s belief that Joe stands for the corruption of capitalism, the idea of money as America’s driving dream. “Is that as far as your mind can see – the business?” asks Chris. “Don’t you have a country? Don’t you live in the world?”
Inescapable are the parallels to today’s climate where loyalty to one’s tribe is celebrated. Meanwhile, loyalty and responsibility to community, to the whole, is derided.
Director O’Brien does not have his cast play the parallels. Rather, they imbue their characters with idiosyncratic candor. Tracy Letts’s hale Joe is a man whose underlying sense of guilt is so repressed yet so manifest as to become an open wound. Seesawing between apologies and towering anger, he’s a big figure belittled by his past. As the sensitive Chris, Benjamin Walker, too, stresses the subterranean doubts that color his relationships with Ann (a spirited Francesca Carpanini) and his parents, As Deever’s son, George, Hampton Fluker is a revelation, seething with anger over Joe’s betrayal yet grateful to be accepted into the Keller family. It’s a stunning portrayal.
But it’s Bening’s suffering, knowing Kate who most embodies the play’s ambivalence. Caring solely for oneself and one’s family is admirable, but is it honorable?
--David A. Rosenberg
May 6, 2019