All My Sons | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader
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ALL MY SONS

Raven Theatre Company

Does anyone remember Viet

nam war protesters marching on the Dow Chemical Company? At the time many people were puzzled by this action, not wanting to make the connection between civilian industries and military supplies, as many people now don't think about the nature of the "surplus" in Army-Navy surplus and comprehend only vaguely why a war is sometimes prescribed--covertly, of course--as a cure for a flagging economy. It's been a long time since America was at war, and the reflexive amnesia that always follows such upheaval has done much to obliterate our understanding of the nuts and bolts of running a war machine.

Vietnam was a long war, and its effects were slow to manifest themselves. But World War II passed swiftly and finished abruptly, leaving its supporters shaken and disoriented, wondering what had happened to them. The fervency with which Americans donned the trappings of normalcy during the 50s--marriage, family, home, cars--reflected the pace of the adrenaline-fueled call to arms.

Joe Keller's family is wearing just those trappings in the lazy August of 1947, the setting of All My Sons. Keller paterfamilias has made a tidy profit during the war manufacturing aircraft parts for the U.S. air forces (the Air Force wasn't a unified body until after the war), and he hopes to pass his thriving business on to his younger son, Chris. Of course, there was that ruckus over a load of defective engine parts that resulted in the death of 21 P-40 pilots, but Joe was acquitted at trial when it was proven that his partner, not he, had given the final approval to ship the damaged products. There is also the matter of his elder son, Larry, missing in action for three and a half years. Everyone is certain of Larry's fate except his mother, who clings to her belief that her son is alive somewhere.

Despite these upsets, the Kellers present the picture of an ideal midwestern American family--until Chris announces his intention to marry Ann, Larry's former girlfriend and the daughter of the partner who went to prison while Joe walked. Her arrival sets off a chain of revelations that cause the Kellers--and us--to question the very foundations of their lives: capitalism, patriotism, loyalty, marriage, family.

All My Sons is not simply an exploration of postwar social problems. Aristotelian precepts stipulate that tragic heroes be people of consequence--kings, for example--whose actions are inherently significant: as they go, so goes the universe. But Joe Keller is a humble man, a tragic hero whose very sin is that he does not recognize the significance of his actions. Nevertheless they are significant, and Keller's responsibility slowly dawns on him. "There is a universe of people outside and you're responsible to them," Chris tells him. "Sure, [Larry] was my son," Keller sorrowfully concludes. "They were all my sons."

The agony and atonement of Joe Keller teach a lesson that transcends time and place. Director Michael Menendian, however, sabotages the play's dramatic impact by starting it at such a high level of intensity that there is nowhere for it to go. With the actors revealing their emotions so blatantly so soon, any subtlety or slow- building tension is effectively stymied. Chuck Spencer, playing Ann's brother George, enters in a red-faced, eye-popping, panting rage and proceeds to make polite conversation in this semihomicidal state. The climactic confrontation between Joe and Chris is diminished because everyone has been playing at maximum emotive energy throughout; what should be the cathartic moment of discovery comes off as just another scene in which two actors with big voices shout at each other. A case can be made that Joe's boisterousness in the beginning contrasts better with his later speechlessness. But if everyone is big and noisy, what is there to make us focus on the protagonist?

With no variations in delivery, the actors race through their lines with hardly a pause for inflection or reflection. Details that could orient us to the period are barely brushed in passing (if we don't know what a P-40 is or remember a time when a pilot-in-training could fly over his own house and be recognized in the cockpit, the actors don't succeed in making us understand). Lyrical or didactic passages requiring huge amounts of subtextual interpretation in order to sound like natural speech are rattled off like oral teletype. (In light of the usually fine and competent work done by Raven Theatre, one looks for some outside reason for this aberrant performance style--could it have been the noisy air conditioner, the rowdy audience, or opening night jitters?)

Another strike against the production is the miscasting of Tim Decker and JoAnn Montemurro as the lovers Chris and Ann. Both are able and well-trained actors, but both have congenitally cheerful faces better suited to comedy than to tragedy. (Decker's characteristic grimace also has the effect of making him always seem on the verge of bursting into tears, which further increases the discrepancy between what the characters seem to be thinking and what the playwright has them saying.) The accelerated pace of the production only heightens the cartoonish quality of their scenes together--as it does nearly all the performances. Only Everett Smith as Joe Keller manages to keep his character believable and three- dimensional (though Bill McGough, as the soft-spoken Dr. Bayliss, salvages much of his character's verisimilitude by relentless underplaying). Ray Tolar has assembled a set so real you could move into it tomorrow, and Kate Mitchell's costumes reflect a keen attention to period detail.

Arthur Miller, in his essay "Tragedy and the Common Man," maintains that the hero's "unwillingness to remain passive in the face of what he conceives to be a challenge to his dignity"--in this case, Joe Keller's insistence on punishing himself for transgressions of moral law--leads us to examine our own sins, actions we had accepted in ourselves until now. Classical tragedy evokes both pity and fear, and pity and fear there certainly were on the night I attended--audience members were weeping openly by the final curtain. Whatever its shortcomings, Raven Theatre's production succeeds in carrying out the mission of Miller's warning--a warning to be heeded all the more in light of recent events in the Middle East--about the terrible toll of war, not only on those who fight on the battlefield, but on all of us.

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