ALL MY SONS

By Arthur Miller (St. Louis Shakespeare Company)

All My Sons is an angry-young-man's play, filled with an angry-young-man's contempt for the moral complacency of his elders — most especially the fathers. Arthur Miller began the play while World War II was still raging, but, as one who felt shame for being exempt from the war effort as the result of an injury, he was already, and particularly, aware of what he describes in the autobiographical Timebends as the "the selfishness, cheating, and economic rapacity on the home front." As a young artist filled with such convictions, Miller wanted no less than to "write a play that would stand on the stage like a boulder that had fallen from the sky, undeniable, a fact."

More than 50 years since that boulder landed on the Broadway stage to stunned and appreciative audiences, All My Sons, in the current St. Louis Shakespeare Company revival, still carries moral and dramatic weight. The force that boulder had on its original audience in 1947 — an America already drifting into the prosperous dream/sleep of Pleasantville — cannot be replicated, but the emotional foundations of the drama that Miller set down — loneliness, guilt, betrayal, shame, desperation — are never in need of historical context.

The play begins on a sunny Sunday on the lawn of the Kellers, Joe (Garrett Bergfeld) and Kate (Donna Northcott). The fine set, a square frame two-story house with a high wood fence, reinforces the idea of domestic tranquility achieved. The play could be a light comedy in the first 10 minutes, but, subtly, the stresses that endanger this benign portrait of American postwar recovery begin to show. Joe speaks regretfully of a son, Larry, lost in the war.

The cloak of normality begins to be shed as the conflicts of the present arise. The son who came home from the war, Chris (Brian Healy), is anxious for the arrival Ann Deever (Kelly Schneider), the daughter of Joe's past business partner. Ann's father went to prison for knowingly allowing defective parts for fighter planes to be shipped from the manufacturing plant he and Joe ran. Twenty-one soldiers died because of this misdeed, and both Deever and Keller were tried; Deever was found guilty, and Joe has grown prosperous.

Ann's return brings back not only this shadowy past but the lost son: She was Larry's girl. Chris now has thoughts of proposing to Ann, and Ann is here for no other reason but to accept, but mother Kate will not accept Larry's death — though he is missing in action, his plane gone down in the China Sea and never recovered, Kate fiercely clings to the belief in his miraculous return.

Miller's script requires the actors to convey a lot of complex information in the first act. Because All My Sons is an angry-young-man's play, Miller had a lot to get off his chest, and each additional bit of information threatens to sink the plot, but director Milt Zoth and cast have done exceptionally well with the storytelling. Although Miller's youthful exuberance shows, the cast keeps the audience engaged.

Soon, with the ruthlessness of Greek tragedy that Miller so respected, the domestic drama (will Mama let them marry?) becomes a struggle between desperate souls — and, in the playwright's view, the struggle for the soul of a nation. As in Death of a Salesman, the father is not the man the son believed him to be. Ann's brother, George (John O'Hearn), arrives to accuse Joe of making his father the patsy. Again, as in Salesman, the happy American family has maintained that happiness through the perpetuation of lies. Chris, who has seen comrades fall in combat for a higher cause, realizes that the family's prosperity has come from those men's blood.

As Chris, Healy is exceptional in playing the noble American veteran, uneasy with the small virtues that are now his everyday existence. Chris has experienced selflessness on the battlefield and now encounters an enormous selfish greed in the man he honored most. Chris goes through the greatest transformation in the play — and must speak some of Miller's most painfully pedantic lines. Healy's performance contains the character's turmoil without becoming overwrought. It is a deeply etched and affecting portrayal.

Bergfeld, as Joe, is casually charming in the opening scenes — the image of the success of the common man. He is prototypically American, exuding friendliness and happiness (though he has few real friends and that happiness is thinly disguised). As the play turns, Bergfeld subtly conveys how Joe is a dark seducer, bringing people close to him so they might not stand back and see the monster he is. Bergfeld's posture changes as the play moves to its dark close, becoming a lurching beast when the horror of his deeds is revealed.Schneider, in keeping with Miller's themes, is the perfect girl-next-door, but beneath the comely and sweet exterior is a woman who has traveled far into the depths of loneliness and is desperate never to return. Schneider plays Ann as a complex and wholly sympathetic figure. She's a tough cookie existing on a dream of love — a common dream, but one no less vital for its ordinariness. Despite these fine performances, Zoth hampers the production by being too concerned with getting the three acts done in two hours. Any number of moments deserved, and needed, pause and slower pacing. Instead, the cast is driven to proceed to the next event, which inevitably flattens the emotional terrain for the audience. The tragic fall of humanity becomes a bumpy detour that Zoth guides the audience through without mishap. Nobody's the worse for wear, which is just the opposite of what Miller intended, who wanted the tour bus turned over in the ditch.

Northcott's Kate is the weakest portrayal onstage, perhaps most hampered by Zoth's rush to completion. She hasn't found her character and is nowhere near the depths of this deeply suffering woman. When the lie that she and Joe have perpetuated is revealed, she acts more like a bickering wife than a wounded soul.

All My Sons is, as legendary producer Harold Clurman described it, "built." Miller's play survives the significant lapses in this production, as does his anger, appropriate for an America grown even more complacent, even more smug — one that can send its sons and daughters into battle without sacrificing a thing, without any ideals at all.

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