All My Sons – Fight or Flight

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A REVIEW BY THE BAD ORACLE

Arthur Miller’s All My Sons takes place in 1946, which was a strange time in American history.  It was as if, after all the suffering of the Depression and the Will-Johnny-Come-Home anxiety, the entire country was encouraged to just go the fuck to sleep.  Shhhh, said the 1950s.  It’s time to make babies and buy electric ovens and live in the suburbs and forget that anyone had to stand on breadlines or feed their children to the dark, gaping maw of Europe.  But in 1946, everyone was still uneasy, they’d not yet fully swallowed the calming potion.  It’s fitting, then, that Miller’s script has so many fairy tale allusions to sleep:  people are always wandering around insomniac in the dead of night, or having harrowing dreams or dozing the whole day away.  Asleep we may go, says Miller.  But not without me shaking you by the shoulders a bit first.

Sons concerns two days in the life and times of the Keller family.  Pop Joe (Jeff Murray) and Son Chris (Sean Kelly) have been sadly humoring Mama Kate (Carol Conley Evans) for three years, now.  See, Kate is convinced that her other, prodigal, son, pilot Larry, is going to return home after, I don’t know, turning up with amnesia in Canada, or something.  That’s all well and fine, but now Chris wants to marry Larry’s sweetheart, Anne (Rachel Roth) and he’s not super into the idea of the ghost of Larry the Good hanging around any longer.  Joe’s got his own reasons for opposing that union, though, chiefly concerning Anne’s father, Steve, who is also his former business partner.  During the mad war years, Joe’s manufacturing business went bananas, crazy enough that they got sloppy about the plane parts coming off the line and a bunch of boys crashed and burned.  Joe squeaked by on appeal, but Steve is still rotting in prison, and Joe’s worried he might hold a grudge.  That concern becomes manifest with the arrival of Anne’s brother, George (David Shoemaker), who is bitter, out for blood.

Director Michael Byrne Zemarel takes a fairly straightforward approach to this material, and the show ends up being all the better for it.  There are two things that I really love about Zemarel’s style:  his sensitivity to emotional beats and the way he directs around the edges.  There are several times where a scene plays out and a character will be off to the side just being there, reacting.  This gives the whole thing an epic quality, as if there is a silent Greek chorus in front of the Keller’s pretty little clapboard house.  Zemarel gives the play this crazy internal engine of a build that leaves you exhausted and panting by the end.

Performances are, for the most part, extraordinary strong.  The narrative hinges on Jeff Murray, and he mostly nails it.  It’s a tough part, because it demands so many Joes.  Murray inhabits some aspects of the character better than others.  He’s got the “mayor of the neighborhood” Joe down, as well as the “bullying, aggressive, pigheaded” Joe.   What I would have liked to see more clearly is the “nakedly vulnerable, absolutely desperate Joe”.  It seems like Murray has a bit of an emotional wall up that doesn’t allow him to flex quite enough for the final scenes.  He can storm with the best of them, but some of the more intense, quiet moments didn’t read as well for me.  I, at first, thought Carol Conley Evans was going to be a too sturdy for the role of raw, raw Kate, but in fact, her grounded quality made the character even more complex.  There’s such a creepy scene in the second act, after George shows up, where Evans shows that Kate’s grief has twisted her into a manipulative monster.  She’s like a poisoned apple pie, a witch casting a spell of comfort, and Evans is so warm that you want to believe her, even though you know what she’s doing is so wrong.  Fucking shudder, man.

Sean Kelly is heartbreaking as Chris, with his barely concealed impatience, yet deep love, for his parents, never more so than when he senses the noose tightening around his family.  Kelly comes alive in the smallest of spaces; he can do so much with a step on the stair or a flicker of the eyes (for some reason, a moment where Chris exits the house exclaiming “I’ve got the girl on the phone!” at the exact wrong time just killed me, and I think it’s because of Kelly’s sweet, open, hopeful face).  He gets the arc and takes Chris from a late-stage boy, kissing and mooning, to a man with too much knowledge, too all of a sudden.  Kelly is wonderful, but if there is a revelation in this show for me, it’s Rachel Roth’s Anne.  Roth is exceptionally good in this role.  I sensed her pain immediately, from the first second, and the way that she’s always watching, watching, watching, wanting to believe but knowing the truth, is damned beautiful.  The performance is so deeply layered that I would like to see the whole show again just to watch her.

David Shoemaker turns in a strangely drawn, remarkable George; he is stiff, broken.  Shoemaker makes George a man whose parts are so shattered inside that he can just barely hang on to the outline of a person.  It’s effective, so much so that I was surprised in reviewing my notes with just how little stage time he actually has.  His chemistry with Roth is notable, too, there’s familiarity, there’s history.  Thom Sinn and Kathryn Falcone are both highly appreciated in small but smartly drawn characterizations of the Baylisses, an unhappily married couple down the block (I wish that Falcone, especially, had more to do).  Barbara Madison Hauck brings a slightly crazed “high-pitched housewife with too broad a smile” to Lydia Lubey, another neighbor, that’s pretty great.

Set design and construction by Bush Greenbeck is so well done and clean that I started to feel like the white and green house was another character.  Costumes are not credited, but capture that creamy late-decade look pretty well, though I wanted more markers of wealth on the Kellers.  Lights by Alex Grinder help to turn the space from mid-day cozy to the weirdly foreign, vaguely threatening territory that is the middle of the night (is there anything creepier, really, than a white rocking chair at two in the morning?).

BOTTOM LINE:  Deftly drawn, exquisite performances (career highs thus far for some of these folks) and taut direction take this post-war classic from tragic to something maybe worse: familiar.  Some shows have a magical, jaggedly inevitable quality about them, and this is one of them.  If you’re looking for a show to root for, to think about, to experience so intensely that you feel tight inside, might I suggest All My Sons?

All My Sons is playing at Vagabond until September 29th.

SECOND OPINION?

Theatre Review: ‘All My Sons’ at The Vagabond Players

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