Thirteen years ago, when D.C. last saw Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, the play was ineptly cast except for the father-son pair at its center, but it still managed to be the most wrenching evening I’d ever spent at Ford’s Theatre.
A 40th-anniversary production starring Richard Kiley and Jamey Sheridan, that 1987 mounting was a Long Wharf Theater Company import directed by artistic director Arvin Brown as an unambiguous melodrama about a family tearing itself apart over a war-profiteering scandal. The show’s one drawback was that Brown had cast his own wife as the family’s fragile matriarch, and she was preposterous—so histrionic in her trembling and eye-rolling that you’d have thought she was auditioning for the grand-opera version of the play.
All My Sons is now being mounted in an artificial, much less straightforward way at Arena Stage by artistic director Molly Smith, but one of several things she gets ringingly right is that selfsame matriarch. She has Beth Fowler, a sturdy, matter-of-fact actress, play Kate Keller as a practical woman who has deliberately cultivated fragility as a strategy for keeping family secrets buried safely underground.
Kate’s refusal to acknowledge her elder son’s wartime death effectively paralyzes everyone who comes in contact with her. Though he was declared missing some three years earlier, Kate still clings stubbornly to the notion that he’ll come home—so stubbornly that her neighbors treat her entire family with kid gloves, even though they suspect her husband of having caused the deaths of 21 other servicemen by knowingly supplying the military with defective airplane parts.
Joe Keller (M. Emmet Walsh), a cocksure industrialist who was exonerated in court on testimony that sent his business partner to jail, all but tiptoes around in Kate’s presence. And their usually assertive son Chris (David Fendig) can’t so much as mention that he’s in love with the business partner’s daughter, Ann (Rhea Seehorn), who was once his brother’s fiancee, because doing so would—in Kate’s eyes—nail the coffin shut.
In short, by catering to Kate’s cannily maintained fragility, the others have effectively granted her control of their lives. And the director has worked with Arena’s designers to create a theatrical environment in which the audience can share their sense of being trapped by that decision. Arena’s production surrounds the auditorium with a 10-foot-high picket fence, enclosing us all in Kate’s back yard—a space that designer Pavel Dobrusky has conceived as a shag-carpeted Eden, complete with apple tree.
Everything in this sterile suburban paradise is carefully manicured, including the slender flower bed that borders the lawn, making it look like an oversized grave, for which the fruit-bearing tree—planted on the day Kate’s son was reported missing—serves as a sort of headstone. When the tree is toppled in the evening’s opening seconds by a late-summer gale that is clearly emblematic of the ill wind blowing this family’s way, you’ll figure you’re in for an evening of symbolism.
What you won’t guess is just how far the director will be willing to take that symbolism. Miller has already freighted the evening with verbal imagery designed to domesticate such issues as survivor guilt and wartime capitalism. Smith visually underlines those images, doing things like projecting a shadowy cross near Chris(t) when he judges his father and turning Ann’s emotionally crippled brother into an actual amputee. (The trench coat Paul Morella must wear to hide his leg bindings makes him appear to have catapulted into mid-August from another season altogether.) In Act 3, when the psychological terrain shifts suddenly and the characters’ lives have become hell on earth, darned if the director doesn’t make that visual, too.
Smith has had to subvert or ignore other aspects of the play to make sense of all this metaphor. The evening is usually thought to be centered on the struggle between upright, all-American Chris and his less-than-perfect dad—who does, after all, utter the play’s title in a belated moment of remorse. But at Arena, the women so dominate the action that the big father-son fight is reduced to a setup for a deus-ex-postal moment in which Kate reads a letter her missing son wrote to Ann just before he disappeared. Larger questions—individual culpability, collective memory, capitalism, greed—get subsumed in familial issues, and the play becomes less a moral tragedy than a domestic one.
It helps considerably that Seehorn makes Ann at least as forceful as Kate—and about six times as assured. Both actresses are doing very sharp work throughout. So is Fendig, who manages to supply Chris with plenty of midcentury sweetness and integrity without making the character appear terminally sappy. Walsh’s patriarch is less ideal, not because the actor is misreading lines, but because his physique and carriage don’t conjure up the rectitude and strength Joe needs at the play’s outset if he’s to be persuasive when he collapses later. There’s something essentially shifty about Walsh, which serves him well when he’s playing devious lawmen and foxy reprobates in movies, but which gets in the way of a character who must be seen by his son as a paragon of virtue.
Subsidiary roles—in 1947, Miller thought nothing of peopling the stage with twice as many characters as he needed to tell his story—are played respectably, and some of the design team’s technical effects are quite nice, especially Timothy M. Thompson’s sound, which fills the auditorium with everything from chirping crickets to the roar of soaring bombers. It’s hard to be quite so enamored of Dobrusky’s lighting, which gets pretty heavy-handed about reminding patrons that they’re hemmed in like the characters, and which turns some awfully sharp corners when the director feels like darkening the mood. At several points, illumination that accentuates which side of the flower bed the characters are on—that is to say, whether they’re tromping on the metaphorical grave the director has placed at center stage or standing just outside it—becomes so emphatic that the design scheme itself seems to be pointing fingers of blame.
Still, All My Sons remains an affecting exploration of how an ethical dilemma can cause a family to implode—a subject to which Miller has returned often since this play first brought him Broadway success. The evening’s themes certainly don’t need the insistent underscoring they’re getting at Arena, but it would take a lot more than directorial overkill to dim their power. CP