By Arthur Miller
Directed by Michael Menendian
At Raven Theatre, Chicago
A moving performance of superb writing
I must admit that as a young reviewer, I didn’t really expect an Arthur Miller play to captivate me. Sure, I respected Miller for improving theatre’s artistic credibility and integrating Henrik Ibsen’s mid-career naturalism into American play writing, but I thought we’d moved beyond that a long time ago. I was wrong. All My Sons is still relevant, and Raven Theatre’s production has the same emotional power as the original.
World War II has been over for a year, and downed air force pilot Larry Keller still hasn’t been found. His father, Joe (Chuck Spencer) and brother, Chris (Matthew Klingler), don’t expect him to ever come back, but his mother, Kate (Joann Montemurro) insists he’ll turn up any day. This is a big problem, because Chris hopes to marry Ann Deever (Jen Short), who was Larry’s girlfriend, and according to Kate, still is. Worse, Ann’s father Steve used to be Joe’s lieutenant at his airplane part factory until three years ago, when he knowingly approved defective engines for use. Twenty-one pilots were killed as a result, and he and Joe were arrested and convicted of fraud. But Joe was acquitted on appeal by claiming Steve acted without his knowledge, while the Deevers fled town in disgrace. Now, Ann is back to hear Chris’s proposal, and he assures her everything has blown over and nobody’s resentment for her father transfers to her, anyway. She’s smarter than that.
For his part, Joe once again manages his factory, and enjoys being a big man about town. He has the neighborhood children convinced he was only in prison as an employee, he figures the neighbors must not suspect him because they come to his house to play cards, and he spends his days reading the want ads, always looking for new opportunities to expand the business he’ll leave Chris. After all, Larry didn’t fly the kind of plane his factory supplied (and he didn’t, Miller’s not quite that obvious), so as long as his own remaining son is well off, what of those other twenty-one? But Chris, who deeply loved his fallen comrades, is more nationalistic and less clannish than his father, and the return of Anne, and later, her brother George (Greg Caldwell), threatens to turn the Kellers permanently against each other.
Miller’s dialogue may be faithful to his day, but it sounds a little strange to my ears. Who says “dast?” Director Michael Menendian did an excellent job of guiding both his cast and designers through this challenge. Set designer Ray Toler and costume designer Alaina Moore created a stylized world of blue-green and light brown, with occasional splashes of red. The leaves are made of green netting, recalling both a trap and hangars. Sound designer Luke Sword occasionally took us into the minds of the characters, an expressionistic detail that, along with the slightly other-worldly images, made the unusual turns of phrase seem more organic to this story.
The actors have all found ways to incorporate Miller’s wordiness into their characters. Spencer and Montemurro spit syllables like machine-guns, but I always understood them, and accepted this behavior as a tic of people constantly anxious over their self-delusions. Spencer captures the defiant cheeriness of a man who knows he’s controversial for things he’d rather move past. You can see how Joe Keller charms people despite their better judgment. Montemurro’s Kate scares people into humoring her as much as she demands pity. Despite living in denial, she shares her husband’s ability to alternatively brow-beat and seduce people for her pragmatic purposes.
Jen Short’s Ann has the quiet strength to counter her future in-laws’ badgering. She refuses to cede the speed of the conversation, and tolerates the Kellers with the graciousness of someone with an ace up her sleeve. Klingler’s clean-cut Chris radiates earnestness. For much of the play, it seems as if everyone else is walking over him, and even when he stands up for himself, it’s with an air of golly-gee-willikers. From what we gather of Chris’s childhood, he was apparently buffered from the worst of the Great Depression and had a better education than his father. Joe thinks he’s a naïve boy who only has principles because he’s sheltered, but Chris is a combat veteran of the Asia-Pacific theatre. When Klingler finally taps into Chris’s outraged fraternal bond, the result is glorious to behold. For a second I wondered if this time Joe wouldn’t even make it to his usual end.
As was sometimes the case with Ibsen, most of the action has already happened before the play begins, and we are just waiting for the characters to share all their information. But while that unfolds, we witness the conflict between idealism and survival that Ibsen and Miller were fascinated by. There are all sorts of themes people still connect with: whether profit is ethical in the military industry, the difficulty of adjusting to life as an ex-con, the difficulty of adjusting to life as a civilian. The discount price for students makes this an excellent opportunity for more people to learn to appreciate theatre at its best.
Date Reviewed: September 27, 2014
For more info checkout the All My sons page at theatreinchicago.com
Playing at the Raven Theatre, 6157 North Clark Street, Chicago, IL, 60660
Box office: 773-338-2177
Tickets: $36, seniors $31, students and teachers $15
Run time: 2 hours with one intermission
Runs September 25-November 15, Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 pm, Sunday at 3 pm.