Court Theatre’s pitch perfect production of Arthur Miller’s ‘All My Sons’ is a searing indictment of corruption and lies – public and private – and complicit silence in post- WWII America. Yet, it is as relevant today as it was in 1947 when ‘All My Sons’ was first staged and won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award.
At the heart of the drama are the deaths of 21 American fighter pilots whose planes crashed due to a cracked cylinder manufactured at Joe Keller’s Ohio plant. Joe, played with a scary ferocity by veteran Chicago actor John Judd, roars in anger at any challenge to his entitlement at “the way the world is made.” Joe and his partner, Steve Deever, went to jail for their crimes, knowingly shipping the defective cylinders. Eventually, Joe is “exonerated” and released early. He went on to make lots of “blood money,” profiteering on the war effort like every other business in America. Steve remained in prison for a longer term, having shouldered most of the blame after Joe claimed he was home sick on the day the cylinders were shipped. Swirling around the crime are the themes of truth and obligations to family and to something greater than ourselves.
These themes are revealed in three acts and staged on the back porch of the Keller home, which is framed in stark contrast by the formless outlines of the homes of their neighbors. The Keller’s neighbors are often seen standing from the side and watching the unfolding drama like a complicit silent Greek chorus.
The event that sets up the dramatic clash, like the lightening flash at the very outset of the play, is the arrival of Ann Deever, who, with her brother George, left their childhood home next to the Kellers for New York after their father went off to jail. Ann, tenderly performed by Heidi Kettenring, is determined to fix and put back together the lives that the war has ravaged, most specifically, hers and Chris Keller’s. Ann returns to become engaged to Chris, who physically survived the war, but is still emotionally haunted by the guilt of losing the troops under his command. Timothy Edward Kane plays Chris, alternating between his war borne grief and the hope and optimism that Ann brings to his life. Larry Keller, the other brother and war time pilot, was reported missing three years earlier and is presumed dead to all, except his mother Kate, played with a gut wrenching rage by the marvelous Kate Collins. She holds the threadbare belief that Larry is not dead and will someday return home. To Kate, the truth of Larry’s death can only be proven by his dead body, which does not exist. Without this irrefutable proof, the claims otherwise are, in today’s parlance, simply fake news. Ann’s arrival sets off the unravelling of the family and of the truth. Her engagement to Chris, to be announced to Kate and Joe, is the kindling that ignites the fire.
Opposing the engagement is George, now a New York lawyer, who also returns to the Keller home after just meeting with his father Steve in prison for the first time in years. George, along with Ann, has been estranged from Steve over his role in the murders of the 21 pilots. But, on this visit to Steve, George is told and now believes that Joe, in a phone call, ordered Steve to weld over the cracks and ship the cylinders for fear they would lose the Army contract. Steve added that Joe later lied when he claimed he was home sick that day. Armed with this information, George arrives to stop Ann from marrying Chris and therefore, becoming an abettor with the Kellers to their father’s unjust conviction and incarceration. In the heat of the exchange with George, Kate slips that Joe has not been sick for a day in the past fifteen years, thereby admitting that Joe wasn’t sick with the flu on the day the faulty cylinders were shipped. Hearing this, George tells Ann: “He simply told your father to kill pilots, and covered himself in bed!” He pleads with Ann to leave, but she holds fast and it is George who leaves alone.
Hearing the admission, Chris confronts Joe in an explosive and violent scene over the truth and consequences of his actions, howling with great personal pain: “I thought you were better. I never saw you as a man. I saw you as my father.” Shamed and beaten down by Chris, Joe agrees to turn himself in for his crimes.
More admissions ensue. Their neighbor Jim, a good hearted doctor who longs to do something more with his life than answer the calls of his patients with their imagined ailments, admits to Kate that he and all of the neighborhood have known all along that Joe was responsible for the deaths of the 21 pilots. But, instead of confronting Joe, they remained silent. Jim tells Kate: “It takes a certain talent for lying. You have it, and I do. But, not him [Chris].” Up to now, Chris admired and loved Joe, and refused to believe that his father was a murderer.
The ending is fraught with more revelations, anger and rage, which leaves the audience, and likely the great cast, weak with exhaustion.
Miller’s plays often reflected the times he lived in, and dealt with issues of truth and silence in the face of some horrific event; the crimes in ‘All My Sons” or the witch hunts in the ‘The Crucible’, an allegory for the lies of McCarthyism that ruined so many lives. In one of life’s ironic twists, Miller dedicated ‘All My Sons” to its director, Elia Kazan, who only a few short years later, would testify before the HUAC in Congress. There, Kazan named names in the witch hunt that was the Red Scare, an act of betrayal that Miller and others never forgave.
Miller’s messages of truth, the consequences of lying and of silent complicity remain just as important today. In our daily political discourse over the past year there seem to be no consequences (as of yet) to the 24/7 lying and denials of unassailable truths. Worse is the silence and inaction from the highest levels of our government to this scourge on our democracy and values. In the end, when we compromise our honesty, the “star of one’s honesty” is extinguished forever. Like Joe and Kate, for those in power today in America, the light of their honesty is snuffed out by the compromises they make without regard to the damage it inflicts on others.
Click here to read an earlier Picture this Post review of ALL MY SONS at the Court Theatre, including information on curtain times, ticket prices and how to get tickets.