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“All My Sons” mines fresh power in Miller’s classic

Susan Saccoccia

A recipient of NEA Arts Journalism fellowships in dance, theater and music, Susan reviews visual and performing arts in the U.S. and overseas.

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“All My Sons” mines fresh power in Miller’s classic
Dee Nelson as Sue Bayliss, Ken Cheeseman as Dr. Jim Bayliss, Diane Davis as Ann Deever, Michael Tisdale as George Deever, and Lee Aaron Rosen as Chris Keller in the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of All My Sons, playing Jan. 8 - Feb. 7, 2010 at the B.U. Theatre Mainstage. (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Author: T. Charles EricksonDee Nelson as Sue Bayliss, Ken Cheeseman as Dr. Jim Bayliss, Diane Davis as Ann Deever, Michael Tisdale as George Deever, and Lee Aaron Rosen as Chris Keller in the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of All My Sons, playing Jan. 8 – Feb. 7, 2010 at the B.U. Theatre Mainstage.

The magnificent Huntington Theatre Company production of Arthur Miller’s play “All My Sons” draws viewers in even before the actors step on stage.

The captivating set portrays an American Eden circa 1947. A trim wood frame house with a tidy porch overlooks a yard with two tall poplars and a young apple tree. The play opens by rupturing this scene with a film clip of the Andrews Sisters singing “Don’t Sit under the Apple Tree” spliced with thundering World War II aerial combat footage.

The video projection is the first of several hallucinatory images that evoke the nightmares haunting the occupants of the house, particularly Kate Keller, played with epic power by Karen MacDonald.

On stage at the Boston University Theatre through Feb. 7th, this production directed by David Esbjornson fully mines the tragic heft and moral urgency of the first masterpiece by playwright Arthur Miller (1915 – 2005), which debuted on Broadway in January 1947. Like Miller’s later classics, including “Death of a Salesman,” “The Crucible” and “A View from the Bridge,” this play explores characters struggling to attain the American dream at almost any cost.

Esbjornson orchestrates a superb cast as well as the wizardly stagecraft of Maya Ciarrocchi (projection design) Scott Bradley (sets), Elizabeth Hope Clancy (costumes), Christopher Akerlind (lights) and John Gromada (sound and music). The acting, costumes, sounds, sets and lighting coalesce to create a world that, like Miller’s language, finds poetry in everyday life.

In the first scene, Kate steps onto the porch at 4 a.m., jolted by thunderclaps and a dream of her son Larry, an airman lost in combat three years ago. As she watches, lightning shatters the apple tree that is his memorial. The storm hints at the gale-force passions to be unleashed in course of the next 24 hours in this tranquil yard, which becomes a battleground.

But as morning comes, instead of exploding shells, birds chirp and the nimbus of serenity returns to the set. Its muted, earth-toned palette extends to the stylishly homey attire of the characters. On this warm Sunday in August, the men are in shirtsleeves and their wives wear soft blouses, skirts and aprons.

The yard is a gathering place in the neighborhood where Joe Keller and his business partner, Steve Deever, raised their families. The Kellers’ sons, Larry and Chris, grew up with the Deevers’ children, George and Ann.

Their lives changed three years ago, with the loss of Larry and the scandal that enmeshed Joe and Steve. Their machine shop supplied faulty airplane parts that led to the deaths of 21 pilots. While Steve remains in prison, Joe got off with an alibi and, taking over the business, became a wealthy man.

As Joe Keller, Will Lyman gives a high-voltage performance pulsing with Joe’s alternating currents of desperation, anguish, charm and anger. A raspy-voiced chameleon, he can be cagey and engaging, and enjoys beguiling a local boy, Bert — a role performed alternately by Spencer Evett and Andrew Cekala — with a game of cops-and-robbers. Joe used the same charm to face down his neighbors and get them to bury their suspicions that he “pulled a fast one to get out of jail.”  

Lyman draws the growing sense of menace out of Miller’s script, in which words such as “know,” “jail,”  “honor” and “gun” frequently recur, each time gaining ominous weight.

Lee Aaron Rosen plays the Kellers’ seething son Chris, a disappointed idealist. After witnessing the heroism of men in combat, he returns to find “nothing has changed at all.” Refusing to defer his dreams any longer, he is determined to marry Ann, who was Larry’s fiancée.    

Her arrival sets off an uneasy reunion of characters with conflicting desires. Kate madly hopes for Larry’s return. Joe wants to preserve his family and business through Chris. Ann and Chris seek a new life free from their parents’ tainted past.

As these characters negotiate their fates, their interactions shift in seconds between enraged confrontations and genial banter. With each exchange, tensions mount and threaten to tip the balance between a tentative peace and all-out war.

 Diane Davis as Ann stands in sharp relief to the haunted Kellers. She wholeheartedly pursues what she’s traveled from New York for — an engagement with Chris — and holds her own against MacDonald’s formidable Kate, who insists that she is “Larry’s girl.”

Only two people seem content: earnest, flakey Frank Lubey (Owen Doyle) and his wife Lydia. Frank got lucky: one year too old for the draft, he avoided combat, and married Lydia, who crafts stylish hats and sews fetching dresses. Stephanie DiMaggio is just right as Lydia, the pretty and down-to-earth young woman George pined for while he was away in the army.

Fanning Kate’s wild hopes, Frank is studying Larry’s astrological chart to determine if the day he went missing — Nov. 25th, was in fact his “favorable day.” If so, says Frank, Larry’s odds of dying would have been “one in a million.”

Chris is not the only idealist in the neighborhood. Ken Cheeseman’s Doctor Jim Bayliss is a lanky, rueful figure who had once aspired to do medical research. Jim’s wry wife Sue, performed tartly by Dee Nelson, resents Chris for reminding her husband of his early dreams.  

An unexpected visitor arrives: Ann’s brother George. Now a lawyer, he wants justice for his father. As George, Michael Tisdale registers the fury of a son defending a wronged parent as well as his susceptibility to the bonhomie of the Keelers, particularly Kate, who has doted on him since childhood.

But a slip of the tongue triggers the harrowing finale. As lies fall away, the starkest moment of truth strikes Joe to the heart. His realization gives the title of the play its meaning.