The crushing of youthful ideals has fueled many a drama, both onstage and off. But few have accomplished this as powerfully, or as devastatingly, as Arthur Miller in his 1947 drama All My Sons, currently revived by Roundabout Theater Company in a thrillingly devastating production at the American Airlines Theater.
Miller’s first major commercial success, All My Sons presents a domestic drama within a larger-scale story of American capitalism and success, probing the dark secrets that hover behind the ideal of the American Dream achieved. Set over the course of one chaotic at the Keller household, Miller’s play pierces the facade of the happy Middle America family and promptly shatters it.
Audiences are invited into the seemingly idyllic backyard of the Keller family (designed with lush detail by Douglas W. Schmidt) where Joe, played in a shattering performance by Tracy Letts. Having worked hard his entire life, Joe has achieved financial success and intends to enjoy life, having weathered the scandal when he was arrested for shipping defective airplane parts that caused the crashes and deaths of servicemen. Joe appealed and was exonerated, but his former business partner remains in prison.
That partner happens to be the father of Ann, the Keller’s former neighbor and sweetheart of Larry, one of Joe’s two sons. Reported missing in action three years ago, Larry’s death has been accepted by everyone – everyone, that is except for Kate, Joe’s wife and Larry’s mother. Ann and her mother moved away, but she has come to visit the Kellers at the invitation of Chris, Larry’s younger brother, who has fallen in love with her. But Chris and Ann marrying would mean accepting that Larry is dead, which Kate steadfastly refuses to consider for reasons far more complicated than motherly love.
The tensions lurking beneath this peaceful suburban home are apparent, thanks to Jack O’Brien’s direction that firmly grounds the production in realism and the masterful performances of many cast members. Letts is a compelling Joe, offering subtle glimpses of the darkness beneath his role as man of the house that slowly simmer as the day progresses, and his admission of guilt is devastating. Walker is masterful as Chris, steadfastly clinging to his ideals even as the world around him repeatedly proves him wrong. Watching his romance with Ann unfold is sweet, as he tentatively reveals his love for her. Francesca Carpinini infuses strength and sadness into the underwritten part of Ann, whose figure and dress are frequently mentioned, but little of her personality is revealed to the audience, or exactly why Chris loves her so much he’s willing to devastate his mother just to be with her. Despite her sunny disposition, Ann carries a great deal of weight, of which Carpinini offers subtle glimpses, as well as the courage and self-assurance that survives it. (This critic especially enjoyed when, after Chris timidly kisses Anne for the first time and promises to make her happy, Ann replies, “Not like that you won’t” and kisses him more deeply.)
Returning to Broadway for the first time since 1987, Bening gives a steady, but ultimately dispassionate performance as Kate. This wife and mother is no wilting flower or unstable woman clinging to her husband for support. Bening’s Kate is fueled with steely resolve, showing just how desperately she must believe her son is still alive. But Kate’s strength and steadfastness begins and remains on the same plane throughout the show: Bening hoarsely shouts every line, and her performance remains stagnant. The play’s calamitous final moment, in which Walker’s performance edges upon terrifying, loses much of its impact due to Bening’s delivery.
It’s a visit from Ann’s brother, played by the excellent Hampton Fluker who forces the evening into its disastrous unveiling of the truth, forcing the Kellers to acknowledge Joe’s actions and the audience to recognize just how timeless this story is, despite Jane Greenwood’s period costumes and Natasha Katz’s atmospheric lighting. Watching Letts attempting to justify Joe’s actions inspires reflection on America 70 years after the play’s premiere, as the lines between morals and capitalism continue to blur and people frantically seek loopholes through which they can live with themselves. Politics, the President himself and the recent headlines regarding faulty Boeing 747s are almost too applicable.
Little is a surprise in this revival, but much of it is devastating.