When Simon McBurney’s high-concept production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons landed on Broadway in 2008, the critical reaction was swift and largely condemnatory: how dare a Brit turn a cherished American tragedy into a pseudo-Brechtian (and, hell, probably Commie) performance piece? Complete with (gasp) color video and non-naturalistic sets? But New York critics be damned; audience members (including this one) realized that McBurney had accomplished what few American directors have the balls to do: to treat All My Sons as a new play, for a new generation, with all of the opportunities (and, yes, perils) of technology. And it worked.
I thought instantly of McBurney’s wizardry as soon as I entered the theater for the Classic Theatre’s latest production; after all, the mise-en-scène boasted a mostly abstract set — all gauze and tapestry — with a floating film reel of chipper war propaganda supporting our boys in uniform. Better yet, the reel soon segued to an audio version of Frank Loesser’s “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition,” one of the more comically jingoistic songs of the period. Was this to be, then, an evening of brutally ironic, multimedia Miller?
As it turns out: nope. This is Miller straight up, and no cause for critical alarm — this is probably how your parents saw Miller, too. As envisioned by director Diane Malone, All My Sons is already a perfect tragedy, so why mess with a good thing? The plot exposes the hypocrisies and failures of a tight Midwestern family living high on the hog after WWII; it seems that Mr. Keller, a munitions dealer, has managed to wave off accusations of negligence and war profiteering even after a partner heads to the slammer. All is not peachy in Pleasantville, however: One of the Kellers’ two beloved sons, Larry, went missing in the Pacific, and Mrs. Keller continues to pine hopelessly for him. When Larry’s fiancée unexpectedly returns to the Kellers’ household — stronghold, nearly — she sets into motion Miller’s clockwork tragedy of sins exposed, of secrets shared, of sons and fathers betrayed.
Malone ekes out individual moments of heartbreak, but the whole is never as shattering as it might be. The most successful performances develop an arc throughout Miller’s admittedly schematic play: In particular, Alan Utley and Allan Ross, as Keller fils and père, make the leap from the crisp optimism of Act I to the searching angst of Act III. Indeed, Utley’s fresh-faced and saintly Chris — the surviving brother to Larry — makes an excellent foil to Ross’s increasingly snarling patriarch: Ross’s terrific (and terrifically misguided) demolition of “forgiveness” constitutes Miller’s sharpest attack on the ethical lapses of capitalism. Less successfully, Terri Peña Ross, as a mater dolorosa, starts off unhinged, with nowhere to go; she seems manic from the get-go. Christi Eanes nicely plays Anne, the returning fiancée, with a perspicacity that makes Utley’s Chris all the more naïve. E. J. Richards, as Anne’s brother, storms the stage with a bit too much pique. The Kellers’ neighbors — a gabby rabble that includes Justin Laughlin and Current contributors Kyle Gillette and Rachel Joseph — serve to recall the play’s other factory: the local gossip mill. (Mandy Whitlock steals her scene as that mill’s passive-aggressive foreman.)
While Jimmy Moore contributes some appropriately earth-toned costumes, the production is not otherwise well-served by its physical design. Malone’s odd set — with naturalistic and abstract elements jostling for attention — includes a confusing “stump” that looks for all the world like a huge, detonated Q-tip. Steve Bailey — who contributed such an amazing lighting design to R&G Are Dead — opts for overly subdued tones in the gloom-filled second and third acts, casting shadows everywhere. (When Mrs. Keller turned off a naked bulb on the front porch, I inwardly groaned: Dammit, the audience needs those 60 watts!)
It’s a cliché, of course, to call All My Sons timeless; indeed, the production works best when it rings most timely, and the specter of Halliburton lurks in every scene. Sadly, the play is often neglected in favor of its later, even more “timeless” sibling — Death of a Salesman — and it’s anyone’s guess when it will next be revived in San Antonio. So if your family hasn’t seen it, why not consider taking your daughters and sons?
All of them. •