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All My Sons

Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors

Actors from All My Sons

Tracy Letts, and Annette Bening. 
Photo by Joan Marcus.

It all feels true, Arthur Miller's articulate and touching themes of family and society, war and business, denial and self-deception. His 1947 American classic, All My Sons, an immaculately plotted exploration of an American family, is skillfully revisited at the American Airlines Theatre by The Roundabout Theatre Company.

Director Jack O'Brien (Hairspray, Henry IV) steers a sterling cast through the veneer of post-war complacency and delves into secrets and acrimony to unravel a shattering inevibility of the past.  It begins, unassumingly enough, on a sunny Sunday morning at the Keller home, appearing as All-American as  apple pie  baking in the kitchen.

The first break in the veneer is a small tree damaged in the overnight storm, planted three years ago in honor of the family son, Larry, who was killed in battle.  Its splintering now opens a conflict between self-interest and the broader duty people owe to their society, a break that has been simmering in the family since his death. 

Joe Keller (Tracy Letts) sits in the backyard, chatting with passing neighbors, comfortable with having come to terms with his prison conviction for selling defective airplane parts to the military.  Because he pleaded sick, he had been given a lighter sentence, leaving his friend and factory partner, Steve Deever, to sign the deal that caused the deaths of 21 pilots.  Letts (Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe) makes it clear that Joe feels he has paid his price.  Behind a tenuous mask of normalcy and unease, he remains convinced that war is a business and his priority was providing for his family and he should not be blamed for living the American dream and making money.

His wife, Kate Keller, is played by Annette Benning (Coastal Disturbances) in this outstanding return to Broadway.  Kate never admitted that her son is really dead, convincing herself that he will someday return.  Suppressing the realization that if if she admits Larry is gone forever, she must also recognize her husband's role in causing his death.  She mourns for her son, suffering pain and migraines, and clearly illustrated by Benning, Kate uses her fragility and mood swings from anger to grief to manipulate others, especially with her husband and other son, Chris.

Benjamin Walker (American Psycho) plays Chris, the idealistic center of the family, admiring his father yet he feels uneasy about the defected airplane parts.  He works in his father's factory that now manufactures domestic, not war products,  feeling guilt about surviving the war and earning money.  Recently, Chris accepted that his brother is dead and it is time for him to go on with his life, so he invited his brother's fiancee, Ann Deever (Francesca Carpanini) to visit.  He plans to ask Ann to marry him, despite his mother's insistence that Larry is still alive.  (After her father, Joe's partner, Steve, went to jail, the Deever family moved out of town.)

The supporting cast includes fully-developed characters in brief,  meaningful roles all advancing Miller's themes. Living in the old Deever house next door, Dr. Jim Bayliss (Michael Hayden) wants to stop practicing medicine and devote himself to research.  His wife, Sue (Chinasa Ogbuagu) is strongly against it, arguing that his financial responsibility is to his family.  Living on the other side of the Keller house is Lydia Lubey (Jenni Barber), an old friend of Ann's, and her husband Frank (Nehal Joshi), an amateur astrologer who is trying to help Kate prove that Larry could have survived. 

When Ann's brother, George (Hampton Fluker), suddenly arrives with news about their imprisoned father, he sets off a downward slide for the family. Ann is forced to present Kate with some damning news, a shattering blow slamming the past into the present.

Miller's language, always straightforward with an edge of poeticism and Jack O'Brien's deft handling, heightens the dramatic fall-out with emotion and truth.  Gut-wrenching is the point when Joe, reading Ann's message, must admit that the fallen pilots, are, like Larry, "all my sons," and his self-denial collapses.

Douglas W. Schmidt's typical Americana set is especially dramatic after contrasting the overnight thunderstorm with threatening lighting by Natasha Katz and sound effects by John Gromada, to the following bright morning.  The play is further enriched with video and projections by Jeff Sugg.  Jane Greenwood dresses the characters with a detailed period look, right down to seamed stockings for the women. 

Relevancy is clear here in Arthur Miller's second play, pointing to a current incident of faulty airplane parts, but also to the American dream of greed, lies and denial still delivered with smashing conviction over 70 years after he wrote it.

All My Sons 

Roundabout Theater Company
American AirlinesTheatre 
227 - West 42 Street. NYC
Previews: April 4, 2019. Opening: April 22, 2019. Closing: June 23, 2019
Running time: Two hours, 30 min. One intermission.
Cast: Annette Bening, Tracy Letts, Benjamin Walker, Michael Hayden, Francesca Carpanini, Hampton Fluker Jenni Barber, Alexander Bello, Monte Green, Nehal Joshi, Chinasa Ogbuag
Directed: Jack O’Brian

Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors
April 2019

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