Sunday, April 19, 2009

“All My Sons”: still valid and powerful

Andee Saenz and Dan Featherston. Photo credit: River Stage

Moral ambiguity seems to be the trend in theater today, as exemplified by John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt,” which endorses withholding judgment as a virtue. So it’s a bracing change to find a theater, like River Stage, that revives older American classics, plays that take forthright stands on moral issues. A case in point is Arthur Miller’s 1947 “All My Sons,” an indictment of some entrenched priorities, such as placing business success ahead of citizenship, as long as tainted money contributes to support for a family.

During World War II, according to the story, a company dependent on the government knowingly shipped 121 defective cylinder heads to the war zone for use in P-40 fighter planes. As a result 21 crashed, killing the pilots. The two partners in the company, also neighbors in an unnamed Midwestern town, were Joe Keller and Steve Deever, and Steve’s daughter, Ann, was engaged to Larry, Keller’s older son.

Joe was imprisoned briefly for the crime but exonerated after pleading an illness (a lie) that happened at the time the faulty parts were shipped. Thus Steve alone ended up in prison, creating a rift between what had been two friendly families.

The action takes place in front of the Keller home on Kale Braden’s convincing set. The Devers have moved away after selling their home to Dr. Jim Baylis (Earl Victorine) and his wife Sue (Shana Sperry). The Keller house is flanked on the other side by a well-adjusted younger couple, Frank and Lydia Lubey (Blain Newport, Shannon Carroll).

The action begins early on an August morning, with conversation about a tree felled by lightning during the night. It was called “Larry’s Tree,” in honor of the Keller son who disappeared in action as a pilot during the war. Chris (Dan Featherston), the Kellers’ younger son, has invited Ann (Andee Saenz) for a visit. Because Larry has been missing for three years, Chris feels that it’s time to conclude that Larry is no longer alive, so he intends to marry Ann, who has been dutifully awaiting Larry’s return but is ready to acknowledge her love for Chris.

Standing in their way is the brothers’ mother, Kate Keller (Claire Lipschultz), who refuses to give up on Larry and demands that Ann continue her patient vigil. Joe Keller (Blair Leatherwood) seems complacently balanced, having saved his business and reconciled with the neighborhood. He even plays an ironic police game with Bert (Campbell Salmon), a small boy, where they put people in jail.

But tension mounts in the second act, with the arrival of George Deever (Dan Morin), Ann’s brother, who’s convinced of his father’s innocence of the wartime crime and opposes his sister’s marriage into the Keller family. Evidence emerges of a love-hate relationship between George and the Kellers, who were like a second family to him. The complications are as entangled as a soap opera, although the characters are more real.

Under Director Frank Condon’s deft hand, the cast offer compelling and convincing performances. Because of the acoustical limits of the performance space, though, some lines came through muffled.

“All My Sons” is Miller’s first successful production and has a ring of truth for today, as scandals keep emerging about defense contractors bilking the government, even supplying defective equipment that adds risks to the lives of our troops abroad. Time Magazine recently reported that “the U.S. Army has ordered a recall of more than 16,000 sets of body armor” because “they failed tests to meet Army specifications.”

In the play Miller blends the realism of Ibsen with the lofty power of Greek tragedy.
It rises to an epiphany when Joe at last realizes that the pilots who died because of his greed and carelessness were “all my sons.” It also laid the groundwork for Miller’s masterpiece, “Death of a Salesman,” which two years later dramatized our culture’s shallow values of “success,” such as getting rich and winning ball games.

“All My Sons” continues through May 17 at Cosumnes River College, 8401 Center Parkway, Sacramento. Tickets are $10-$18, with special discounts. Performances are Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. Call 916-691-7138. For more information or go to

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