NEW YORK—That each of us has a moral duty to everyone else is a message at the center of Arthur Miller’s powerful drama “All My Sons,” which is being given a stellar Broadway revival by the Roundabout Theatre Company.
It’s August 1947, and while World War II is over, its effects linger, as clearly evident in the Keller family’s comfortable middle-class enclave.
The family has never recovered from the news that their son Larry was listed as missing in action three years earlier. Matriarch Kate Keller (Annette Bening), in particular, is holding on to the irrational belief that her son is still alive.
The certainty of his death is something neither her husband Joe (Tracy Letts) nor Chris (Benjamin Walker), their one remaining child, has been able to shake, though each halfheartedly tries to.
Kate’s resolve toward her missing son is about to be tested as never before, with the impending arrival of his former girlfriend Ann (Francesca Carpanini). She and Chris, who survived his own wartime experiences, have begun a romance, and Chris now plans to ask Ann to marry him.
Joe, though, is worrying what will happen when Kate hears the news. Kate still sees Ann as Larry’s girl, and she regards anything otherwise as a betrayal.
Also hanging over the family is the fact that during the war, Joe and his former business partner were convicted of selling defective airplane parts to the Army, which resulted in the deaths of 21 pilots when their planes crashed. Although Joe was eventually exonerated on appeal, his partner, who is also Ann’s father, remains in prison.
Even though Joe has always denied culpability in the matter and has worked hard to rebuild his factory and his reputation since, there are those who doubt in his innocence.
Bringing matters to a head, Joe has just learned that Ann’s brother George (Hampton Fluker) is coming to town to see them after having recently visited his dad in jail. Joe awaits the visit with some trepidation.
More than simply a morality tale about coming to terms with one’s past actions, “All My Sons” is also an indictment against those profiting from war, no matter how lofty or necessary their goals may have been.
Playwright Arthur Miller, through Chris—the most innocent character in the piece—rejects claims that culpable people are simply cogs in an uncaring system that is only interested in results. The play takes pains to point out that no matter how hard one may be pushed by those in authority, each of us is personally responsible for how our decisions, or non-decisions, affect others.
Quite interesting are the little pockets of gossip that occur in the play through conversations with the Kellers’ neighbors, who keep alive a distrust and suspicion of Joe. It’s clear that we are able to convict a person in the court of public opinion, if nowhere else. (Thanks to today’s social media platforms, the court of public opinion is even more common today.)
Jack O’Brien’s direction is excellent. His efforts help to create a seemingly quiet and content existence for these characters, until a closer look reveals their turmoil. The story slowly but surely unfolds with a simple, yet devastating effect.
This feeling is helped greatly by Douglas W. Schmidt’s set design and Natasha Katz’s lighting.
Letts does a perfect turn as Joe. He’s a fellow who wants to be everybody’s friend, holding sway over the neighborhood’s weekly card games and always having time for everyone. Yet he cannot escape others’ suspicions concerning what he may have done.
Bening is wonderful as Kate. As a wife and mother seemingly clinging to a hopeless fantasy, she is in actuality protecting her family from destruction.
Walker is fine as Chris, a young man who has somehow held on to his wide-eyed hopeful view of the world, even during the darkest points of war, only to have it threatened anew on the home front.
Carpanini is appealing as Ann. Like so many others, she just wants to move on from the hurts of the past but may not be able to easily do so.
Fluker is very good as George, a son who tries to learn the truth regarding his father, but who finds himself caught up in his own desires to go back to the way things were when everything made perfect sense.
Michael Hayden, Nehal Joshi, Chinasa Ogbuagu, and Jenni Barber are fine as the various neighbors, each with their individual quirks and complaints that show the dark spots in their own versions of the American dream.
Thanks to a top-notch cast and creative team, this production of “All My Sons” hits the bull’s-eye on every level. All are advised to immediately put this show on their must-see list.
‘All My Sons’
Roundabout Theatre Company
American Airlines Theatre
227 W. 42nd St.
Tickets: 212-719-1300 or RoundaboutTheatre.org
Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (one intermission)
Closes: June 30
Judd Hollander is a reviewer for Stagebuzz.com and a member of the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org