"We might be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.” —Jimmy Gator, in Magnolia
Over three seasons, from 2014 to 2016, Court Theatre assembled a trilogy of tragedies from separate works by each of three Greek tragedians—Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides—collectively recounting the fall of the house of Atreus. Iphigenia in Aulis got the ugly ball rolling with the tale of how King Agamemnon found himself sacrificing his daughter to placate the goddess Artemis and get the Trojan War on track. The following season’s entry, Agamemnon, saw him assassinated for his trouble. And then Electra gave us his surviving daughter’s revenge on the previous play’s revengers. Sins of the father, illustrated.
Now Court is presenting an unofficial fourth entry in the series, Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, and it’s arguably the best of the bunch.
Miller wrote a handful of plays before and during World War II, but he didn’t receive wide attention until the late 1940s, for his postwar tragedies of common men tangled up in the contradictions of American capitalism. All My Sons was the first of those, premiering in 1947. Death of a Salesman followed two years later.
There are several tangled common men in All My Sons—none of them really happy on their best days, and at least one suffering from what we’d now call trauma. The most tangled of all, though, is Joe Keller, a 60-ish factory owner who went to prison briefly during the war for allowing 120 cracked engine heads to be shipped from his factory and installed in Curtiss P-40s, those single-engine planes that became iconic for the shark eyes and teeth often painted on their noses. Because of the defective parts, 21 fighter pilots died. Joe eventually came home with an official document attesting to his exoneration, but his partner, friend, and next-door neighbor, Steve Deever, remained behind in the penitentiary.
Joe seems to have put all that behind him as the play begins. He even appears to have made peace with the loss of his son Larry, also a fighter pilot, who went MIA in the Pacific three and a half years earlier. The play opens on Joe sitting in his backyard on a late-summer day, reading the paper (not the news—the want ads, which are funnier), making small talk with his neighbor Jim, who bought the old Deever place, and gently messing with the mind of Bert, an eight-year-old from the block who thinks Joe is some kind of sheriff with a jail in his basement. (In a gorgeous touch, Joe explains that his imprisonment underwent an inversion in Bert’s imagination, turning Joe into a retired cop.) In John Judd’s quietly masterful performance, Joe chuckles a lot: the wise old philosopher in retirement.
But in fact he’s King Agamemnon, and his suburban dwelling is the House of Atreus, and his downfall begins as so many of the Greek tragedies do, with the return of someone who’s been away a long time.
What a great play this is! Not a slavish recapitulation of classical tropes, but a recasting of them into a work that’s somehow weighty and lithe, inexorable and unexpected, eternal and American, all at once. Even if you know All My Sons, you don’t know it. You may see it coming—Miller being a staunch constructionist—and still have no idea what hit you. (Which puts you, by the way, in precisely the same situation as Joe Keller.) And, in any case, you can’t escape the relevance of this particular drama to a culture and economy that fetishize the marketplace. Last week the Reader’s Albert Williams, writing about August Wilson’s Jitney, said that Wilson belongs “at the forefront of American drama alongside Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams.” Well, based on this Court offering and an astonishing revival of A View From the Bridge hosted by the Goodman Theatre last fall, I’d say it’s past time to stop thinking of Miller as O’Neill and Williams’s earnest, slightly flatfooted cousin and put him in the forefront too.
Charles Newell’s staging, in which Joe’s neighbors constitute a silent chorus, makes an excellent case for it. Timothy Edward Kane is, well, earnest and slightly flatfooted—but in an appropriate way—as Joe’s surviving son, Chris, who’s taken it into his head to marry Steve Deever’s daughter, Ann. Heidi Kettenring’s Ann makes both Chris’s devotion and her own believable. Playing Ann’s brother, George, Dan Waller feels as uncanny as the stranger in “The Masque of the Red Death.” And if Kate Collins seems heavyhanded at first in the role of Joe’s wife, Kate, she more than justifies that behavior when she comes clean at the end. The woman is but mad north-north-west. v