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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Arthur Miller’s All My Sons Looms Large in Two River Revival

Also see Bob's review of Moon for the Misbegotten

Its 1997 Roundabout revival, as well as repeat viewings of the film version, had convinced this reviewer that All My Sons, Arthur Miller’s first success, is a tidy, simple little play lacking the depth to reveal any new secrets through new viewings and productions. Well, the valuable and increasingly prominent Two River Theatre Company with its new production of All My Sons has proven that I was wrong. Guided by the astute, subtle directorial hand of Roger Danforth, All My Sons is revealed to have a great deal of subtlety and depth beyond the agitprop, self-righteous idealism of a young Arthur Miller for which other interpreters have been content to settle.

All My Sons
Anthony Crane, Beth Dixon, Kenneth Tigar, Clark Carmichael
and (in the window) Mary Bacon

Unarguably, that part certainly is present. The setting is the backyard of a comfortable home "on the outskirts" of a mid-western town in late summer 1946. It is the home of Joe Keller (Kenneth Tigar), a soon to be retired owner of a successful machine parts plant; his wife Kate (Beth Dixon); and their unmarried, highly idealistic son, Chris (Anthony Crane), who works with his father. It is anticipated that Chris will soon take over the business. The Kellers are not untroubled. Their first son Larry, a World War II pilot, three and a half years ago did not return from a mission and is surely dead. However, Kate will not accept this, and she keeps his clothes and his room in wait for his return.

Furthermore, during the war, Joe and his partner Steve Deever were manufacturing airplane parts for the military, and their plant knowingly disguised the defects and shipped out a batch of 120 defective (cracked) engine heads, which resulted in the death of 21 pilots. Joe, who was otherwise never sick a day in his life, was out sick on the day that the cracked engine heads were shipped, and he was exonerated on appeal. All the blame fell on his partner who is now serving a prison sentence. However, many in the community do not believe in Joe’s innocence.

On this fateful day, everything will come to a head. For, about to arrive at Chris’ invitation is Ann Deever (Mary Bacon), Steve’s daughter and Larry’s old girlfriend. More than three years earlier as a result of her father’s conviction, the family had lost their house next door and she had moved to New York in shame. However, for an extended period of time, she and Chris have been in communication and now they intend to marry. Ann has refused to see or speak to her father since his conviction. Hot on her heels, her brother George (Clark Carmichael) will arrive. Having just spoken with their father, George is convinced that his story is true and that Joe was responsible for the decision to ship the defective engine heads.

Of course, we know where all of this is going. Joe Keller is a forerunner of Arthur Miller’s greatest creation, Death of a Salesman’s Willy Loman. Wisely undeterred by the classical definition of tragedy, Miller knew that great and meaningful tragedy occurs in the lives of ordinary people. The essentially decent Joe Keller in placing himself, his business and his family above his duty, obligation and simple decency destroys himself and his family along with many others. And, along with Miller, his idealistic son Chris will not cut him an inch of slack. And damn, given the enormity of his guilt, neither will we.

However, it is not so cut and dried in the Two River production. In the performance of Kenneth Tigar, Joe Keller for all his craft and cunning displays no arrogance. He clearly knows that his arguments in his own defense are craven and unsupportable, and delivers them in desperation without conviction. Only his plea for acceptance from his son Chris ("A father is a father ... "; "there is nothing that he could do that I would not forgive. He is my son.") seems truly heartfelt and worthy of consideration, although I seriously doubt that an idealistic young Miller would have had us buy it. After all, there is not a whiff of criticism even implied to Ann’s abandonment of her father.

Without a preening, arrogant Joe Keller to be brought down, the center of the play shifts to his son Chris and the issues which he will have to confront. When convinced of his father’s innocence, he can be certain that he would walk away from his father and the business if his father were guilty. When he learns that he was wrong, his course of action awaits his coping with emotional pain, doubt and confusion. Anthony Crane delivers a wonderfully real and nuanced performance. His idealism is neither smug nor overbearing when things are going well. Because of his pain and confusion, it is also not that way when he delivers his condemnation to Joe ("Once and for all, you must know there’s a universe of people outside, and you’re responsible to it"). Ultimately, in the culmination of this tragic play, Chris’ father does what he must do to free him and restore his life.

As Kate, Beth Dixon cagily conveys an underlying sense of unease as she supports her husband (his guilt is known to her), irrationally insisting that Larry is not dead and that Ann must leave immediately without Chris. It is because in her mind, "If Larry is dead, he was killed by his father, God doesn’t allow a father to kill his son".

Mary Bacon is an appealing Ann, and Clark Carmichael convincingly runs a gamut of emotions as her brother George. The balance of the cast make a strong ensemble as they create a gallery of small town Americans of prior generations who lived their lives in the communities in which they were born and raised generation after generation. While on stage, Kevin Kelly, Debra Whitfield, Frank Mihelich and Sara Pauley made me long for an America which I will never know.

Scenic Designer Nathan Heverin has designed a hyper-realistic set for a backyard and back of a house where most of us would enjoy spending our Sunday afternoons. We see the grass and some lawn furniture on the apron in front of the proscenium curtain when we enter the theatre. After the curtain rises, the proscenium gracefully disappears from our consciousness as the entire yard and home become a united whole. Very good work here. David Toser’s costumes accurately convey a time when Americans dressed up on a Sunday. Perhaps George could promptly remove the dress hat which he is wearing when he arrives. A realistic touch, yes, but quite distracting even to one who remembers when they were widely worn. The evocative, soothing '40s sounding music which opens the second act and the more ominous dramatic music which opens the third act effectively set the mood for the scenes which follow. There is a brief interval between the second and third acts.

Most of all, thanks to director Roger Danforth for his excellent casting and the thoughtful and effective interpretation which he has brought to the play. Unquestionably, in this Arthur Miller morality play the idealistic axiom that each of us must fulfill our responsibility to society if we are to survive will always be crucial. However, the more complex issue which is brought to the fore in this production as Chris begins the struggle to get his life back in order is the question as to how one should live his life when "a man can’t be a Jesus in this world".

All My Sons is a thoughtful and thought provoking play that is well worth any theatergoers time and attention.

All My Sons continues performances (Wed. (except 2/1)-Sat. 8 p.m./ Sat. & Sun. 3 p.m. (Student Mat. 2/1 – 1 p.m.) through February 5, 2006 at the Two River Theatre Company, 21 Bridge Avenue, Red Bank, NJ 07701. Box Office: 732-345-1400; online: www.trtc.org.

All My Sons by Arthur Miller; directed by Roger Danforth

Cast (in order of appearance):
Dr. Jim Bayliss…………………Kevin Kelly
Joe Keller…………………...Kenneth Tigar
Frank Lubey………….........Frank Mihelich
Sue Bayliss……………….Debra Whitfield
Lydia Lubey……………………Sara Pauley
Chris Keller……………….Anthony Crane
Bert………...Jake Cameron /Jake Tavill
Kate Keller……………………….Beth Dixon
Ann Deever…………………….Mary Bacon
George Deever………...Clark Carmichael


Photo: T. Charles Erickson


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- Bob Rendell



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