All My Sons
Reviewed by Paul Birchall
A Noise Within
Through Nov. 21
Arthur Miller’s powerful 1947 family drama has aged surprisingly well, with its message of capitalist greed and personal hypocrisy ululating strongly through the many years since its first production. There are different ways of watching the drama: The first time you see All My Sons, you’ll probably follow the narrative in real time, as the horror unfolds and the sorrows escalate.
However, if, like many of us, you have seen multiple productions, the play becomes almost a sort of work of mystery and suspense. Given that you know already that paterfamilias Joe is responsible for the flawed airplanes that killed numerous pilots – and that the entire clan is going to be shattered as the news that Joe lied and got his partner jailed for his crimes – our interest comes in deciphering the subtext underlying the early cheerful scenes and seemingly innocent Act 1 interactions.
For those already familiar with the play, the dramatic thrills lie in figuring out who knows what and when – and in what subtle ways is the horrific truth glimpsed in fleeting moments before the scandals are made public? When mother Kate (the brilliant Deborah Strang here) oozes wheedling charm at the neighbors, is she being genuine – or is she being calculatedly, wickedly insincere? When Ann (Maegan McConnell) whips out the letter from her dead fiancé, has she known that he killed himself because of the family wickedness the entire time but has been lying with grace? When the seemingly friendly neighbors come to visit, are they all snarking about the Kellers the moment their backs are turned?
The fascinating thing about watching the play on different occasions is being able to see at just what moments the performers allow the truth of the real situations to bleed through. Director Geoff Elliott’s crisply staged production functions competently on both levels: It’s a good, straightforward depiction of the play’s story, but it also crackles with the subtext that only someone who has seen the play elsewhere might pick up.
Joe (Elliott) is the genial, glad-handing family dad, who runs a mechanical plant that made parts for airplanes during World War II. His son Chris (Rafael Goldstein) adores him and is poised to take over at the factory. Chris is also in love with Ann (Meagan McConnell), the daughter of Joe’s old business partner, who is currently in prison for giving the okay to a set of airplane parts that were fatally flawed. Joe was out sick that day, and wasn’t blamed. However, over the course of a 24-hour period, during which Ann’s emotionally haunted brother George (Aaron Blakely) arrives with dire news, revelations and confessions are made which shatter the clan.
Even though director Elliott has cast himself as Joe, his production often seems to emphasize the play’s other characters over him. And the supporting cast is, indeed, super: Deborah Strang, as Joe’s wife, grieving over the death of her war hero son, is transcendent – is she everyone’s loving mama, or is she a sugary, witchy hag shriveled by bitterness? Strang’s fierce, quite disturbing turn captures both qualities, often at the very same moment. As Chris, crippled by his morals and the efforts of living up to the spirit of his dead brother, Goldstein is remarkable: At the start, he comes across almost as a little oafish – like he’s a boy trying to figure out how to act in a man’s body – but as he evolves to grapple with his dad’s moral ambiguity, he develops a steely maturity.
Ironically, Elliott’s turn as Joe is the show’s weakest. In what appears to be a calculated turn, Elliott portrays Joe as someone who from the start is so artificial, it’s clear something is wrong with him. Some might call this an act of foreboding – but it also just seems like there’s no affection for the character in the performance, which has the ultimate effect of undercutting both the suspense of the revelations and the tragedy itself.
The production values are first rate: Scenic designer Frederica Nascimento’s lovely front garden set, with the house’s windows glowing with light and shadows during the evening scenes. For the most part, though, this is a good, standard, workmanlike production of Miller’s play, that’s as steeped with tradition as you’d expect. There’s no re-inventing the wheel here, but perhaps one doesn’t need that with this particular drama to have an impact.
A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd, Pasadena. Schedule available at www.anoisewithin.org. Through November 21. Two and a half hours, with intermission