The Lies that Bind
Another Arthur Miller play wanders through the minefield of the nuclear family
Published: November 24, 2010
All My Sons
By Arthur Miller
At Everyman Theatre through Dec. 12
The truth is a double-edged sword, Chris Keller learns in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. It’s easy to be a crusader for truth when it coincides with your goals, such as marrying Ann Deever, the girl who used to live next door. Just look at her in that white sundress with those shapely legs ending in bright red heels; who wouldn’t want to marry her? On the other hand, it’s more difficult to stand up for the truth when it threatens those same aims.
Chris, in his mid-20s and back in his Ohio hometown after fighting in World War II, is working in his father Joe’s metal-fabrication plant, but he’s enough of an intellectual to read the book reviews even if he doesn’t have time to read the books. Played by Clinton Brandhagen, Chris still wears a boyish earnestness on his doughy face, and he argues fiercely that he has every right to marry Ann, even though she was once his brother Larry’s fiancee and is the daughter of Joe’s ex-business partner Steve. Chris insists that Larry died in an airplane over the China Sea during the war, even though his mother clings to the hope that Larry is merely missing in action. Chris also claims that Joe is completely innocent of the war profiteering charges that landed Steve in prison, no matter what the neighbors say.
One of those beliefs will be proven untrue by the end of the evening, and the revelation will prove shattering—not because it’s unexpected but because we’ve come to care so much about everyone entangled in these truths and untruths. Miller has constructed an old-fashioned plot where family secrets are dragged out of the shadows in a time of crisis, and it’s not difficult to see them coming. But as he did in the very similar show Death of a Salesman—also about a compromised businessman, a blindly devoted wife, and two sons—Miller makes each character such an intriguing mix of virtues and flaws that we never tire of trying to measure the exact proportions.
Miller gets great help from director Vincent Lancisi, his designers, and the resident company at Everyman. On the back porch and backyard behind a gray-slatted house with green shingles, the Kellers and the Deevers confront one another between apple trees and blond picket fences. All these Ohioans try their best to be nice, and you can see how much it pains them when they are goaded into angry shouts and even hard shoves. These are always followed by a stunned moment of surprise and a clumsy attempt to recover their usual good manners. And it’s because these actors appear so reluctant to lose their tempers that it feels so genuine when they do.
Deborah Hazlett plays her 20th role at Everyman as Kate Keller, who opposes Chris’ marriage to Ann (Beth Hylton) because it would necessitate admitting that Larry is really dead. And Kate, matronly in her flowery apron and red perm, stubbornly refuses to do that, even three and a half years after he vanished. She always smiles sweetly when people disagree with her, but behind that smile is a steely determination to hold onto the truth as she sees it.
Joe Keller, played as a silver-haired mountain of a man by Carl Schurr, is likewise impossible to budge on the scandal at his factory. He insists that the appeals court was right to free him from prison, for it was Steve (who doesn’t appear in the play) that sent out the cracked airplane cylinders that led to the deaths of 21 servicemen. All his poker buddies in the neighborhood believe him; why shouldn’t you? How could you not, with Schurr wrapping the character up in folksy, paternal humor?
These walls of belief never betray a crack until Ann’s brother George (the tall, rail-thin Tim Getman) shows up in the second act to prevent his sister from marrying Chris. He arrives from his father’s prison cell like an avenging angel, all jut-jawed outrage. But even he has another side, slowly revealed by Miller and Lancisi: He can be angry at Joe and Chris but not at Kate, his surrogate mother from all those years ago when he was a child next-door. You can see all his muscles relax when she hands him a tumbler of grape juice.
Plays set in World War II and its aftermath are usually an occasion for dividing the world into heroes and villains. But this script and this production instead reveal the hero and the villain within each person. When George, like the other Deevers and Kellers, is pulled from anger into polite kindness and back again, All My Sons provides a rare, welcome glimpse of the contradictions inside us all.