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When a play becomes a classic, the underlying message is timelessness. Somehow, the work has created characters which transcend their own age, and delivers a message with an innate universality. Most certainly this is true of the best works of Arthur Miller, often termed America’s premiere playwright. As if one needed proof, the solid rendition of his breakthrough work “All My Sons” at A Noise Within in Pasadena offers up that particular balance of the timely and the timeless, with a moral struggle as true today as it was in the years after World War II.
The story wrestles with profiteering during that war, but it provides a window on modern wrestles between the corporation and the idealist, and between morality and mammon. As many know, it centers on a small, midwestern town and the two families at the center of its greatest controversy. During the war, the company owned by Joe Keller and his partner and neighbor Steve Deever made cylinder heads for aircraft. One day some came out cracked, but this was disguised and the cylinder heads were delivered anyway, leading to the deaths of 21 pilots. Both men went to jail for the coverup, but Keller has since been released on appeal. Deever is still in prison.
Now, in the post-war era, Keller’s younger son Chris, a former army officer who lived through heated battles, helps run the business. He wants to become engaged to Deever’s daughter, Ann, though his mother Kate insists that this is impossible. Ann was Chris’ elder brother’s girl before the war, and though he and his plane went missing, Kate insists he’s going to return. Between Kate’s fervent belief, Chris’ intense belief that the only way his war experience can mean anything is if the world is better for what he and his men went through, and the hovering suspicions of Joe’s complicity in those pilot’s deaths, tension hovers ever near. Then news arrives which brings the tensions between truth and hope, between practical capitalism and idealism into sharp and painful focus.
Director Geoff Elliott has made a few interesting choices in this production. Though the costumes (Leah Piehl) and setting place this very firmly in the 1947 in which it was first performed, the casting – far more diverse than a midwestern neighborhood of that era would have seen – seeks for universality. Also, the director has cast himself as Joe Keller, the focal point of much of the play’s drama. This is a bit disappointing, as an independent eye would have challenged him – as has been true in some other fairly recent ANW productions – to do his most creative interior work. Here he sometimes reverts to what one can recognize as a more formulaic approach for his own part.
The same is not true for the rest of the cast, however, all of whom prove strong and compelling. Rafael Goldstein steps into Chris’ passion and belief system as if it was made for him. The events which begin to rock Chris’ understandings seem to hit on a visceral level, making the character rounded and deeply believable. Maegan McConnell gives Ann the balance of trust and nerve and direction, and the chemistry between her and Goldstein center the conundrums of this young couple’s desire to move forward. Most profoundly, Deborah Strang’s aching, obsessive Kate has a naturalness about her maternalism which anchors the entire proceeding.
Also worthy of considerable note are Aaron Blakely, briefly but intensely present as Ann’s furious brother almost wooed back into the neighborhood fold, E.K. Dagenfield and Natalie Reiko as a young couple unusually untouched by the chaos of war which surrounded most of their contemporaries, and Vega Pierce-English as the neighbor boy urged to virtuousness by the the comparatively questionable Joe. Perhaps most captivating is the underscore to the entire debate over money’s role in both happiness and morality exemplified by Jeremy Rabb’s country doctor dreaming of a life in research and June Carryl as his wife, insistent he live out his promise of financial security instead.
There is a reason students still study “All My Sons,” as its ethical dilemma seems as fresh today as ever. Joe’s insistence that money and leaving something for his son to inherit trumps anything else, contrasted to his son’s insistence on seeing the world beyond the factory door – that age-old battle between the market and humanity – could be reset in any time frame from the Civil War to this year’s presidential campaign. The art of Miller is to bring it down to the extremely personal, to people you believe you know. That, and the solidly interesting performances from most of the cast, make this definitely worth watching.
“All My Sons” is part of ANW’s three-play fall repertory season, alternating with “A Flea in Her Ear” and “Antigone”.
What: “All My Sons” When: Through November 21, 7 p.m. October 25 and November 15, 7:30 p.m. November 5, 8 p.m. October 30, November 6 and 21, 2 p.m. matinee October 25 and 30, November 15 and 21 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd in Pasadena How Much: from $44, $20 student rush Info: (626) 356-3100 ex 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org
For many, both in theatrical and literary circles, Arthur Miller stands out as the greatest American playwright of the 20th Century. His plays used classical forms and modern references to examine universal themes of contemporary morality, from the empty ideals of a Willie Loman, the rushes to judgement represented by the Salem Witch Trials, or the choices of the powerless in Nazi Germany.
In one of his first, and most powerful plays, “All My Sons” the battle – still very present today – between free enterprise and ethical responsibility wrenches apart that most sacred of American icons, the nuclear family.
In a new production at Whittier Community Theatre, much of the power of this classic play is on display. The direction is intelligent and the pacing keeps the passions moving. Most of the actors are up to the task. It all adds up to a fairly pleasant revisit with this great work.
We are at the home of Joe Keller, a small town Midwestern manufacturer who both made and marred his fortunes during World War II – a war in which his elder son died. He was imprisoned along with his business partner for selling defective parts to the Air Corps, resulting in the deaths of pilots. He was freed, his partner is still jailed, his boy is dead, and his second son appears to be romancing his partner’s daughter. Worst, his wife will not give up the idea that some day their older son will return.
Richard Large slides easily into the character of Joe, full of a friendly, but overly hearty bluster. As his troubled wife, Kate, Candy Beck hits just the right balance between motherliness and deep, abiding sadness. Justin Patrick Murphy shines as the stalwart and straightforward Chris, the younger brother – a seeker in his own right, torn between his parents’ legacy and his love for his girl.
As the equally torn love interest, Ann, Alexandra Ozeri moves with the appropriate combination of nervousness and excitement. Unfortunately, her understanding of vocal projection leads her to make her voice very shrill. This makes her a bit less sympathetic and a bit harder to listen to as the show progresses.
Norman Dostal makes a brief but vibratingly emotional appearance as Ann’s lawyer brother, fresh from a visit to their imprisoned father. Todd Rew has several very telling moments as the young and idealistic doctor. Shannon Fuller balances him well as his extremely practical, moderately bitter wife. Ernie Rivera and Casey Morlet have fun as the somewhat blissful and innocent young couple down the street, while John Noah Molina supplies the neighborhood kid Joe encourages to be law-abiding to a fault.
Director Roxanne Barker has a real feel for this kind of material. She keeps the pace flowing and gives the characters enough to do to keep the whole thing from devolving into a debate. The set, by Suzanne Frederickson, evokes the kind of Midwestern yard and house which create the normalcy in this disquieting tale. Karen Jacobson handles the props and costumes, and opts either for the vaguely or specifically period, though one wonders why almost all the men’s pants are a bit short.
Still, this is a lively production – particularly polished for a community group. The group itself is worth mentioning. As they barrel through their 91st season they are probably the oldest continuously operating theatrical company in the greater Los Angeles area. That’s worthy of note, all by itself.
What: “All My Sons” When: through March 3, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday Where: Whittier Community Theatre at The Center Theatre, 7630 S. Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $12 general, $10 seniors/students/military Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org