Arthur Miller’s first hit, All My Sons, won the Drama Critics’ Circle Award as the best American play for the 1947 season. In honor of the play’s 50th anniversary, St. Augustine Chapel and the Actors Bridge Ensemble are currently staging All My Sons on the Vanderbilt campus. It’s a small but very serviceable production, although the opening night was compromised by a technical glitchone that potentially changes the viewer’s reading of the play.
The plot is fairly straightforward. Joe Keller owns a munitions factory; sometime during World War II, he sold defective airplane engines to the army, which resulted in the deaths of 21 pilots. There was a cover-up, and his partner went to jail. Back from the war, Keller’s idealistic son, Chris, discovers his father’s guilt and ultimately learns the cause of his brother’s MIA status.
Written in the tradition of a 19th-century “well-made play” (and somewhat contrived à la Ibsen), All My Sons should nonetheless be quite relevant to contemporary audiences. Even though it’s set at the end of World War II, this drama could unfold in some other time and placein the conflict against Korea, against Vietnam, or against Iraq. In his program notes, director Bill Feehely underscores the playwright’s juxtaposition of values, stating that the play “addresses the tenuous foundation of family, [and] the effect of unbridled commerce.” The tension in All My Sons can be found at the heart of that juxtaposition, and the play challenges the audience to make the right decision.
The tragedy at the heart of Miller’s drama is that Joe Keller did not make the right decision, yet he argued that “nothin’ is bigger” than family loyalty. Ken Jackson, who plays a strong, forceful Joe in this production, delivered those lines passionately, but he added the right mix of ambiguity when he tried to justify his actions. “It’s dollars and cents, nickels and dimes; war and peace...”by the time he gives that speech, Ken Jackson’s Joe is a desperately sorry character.
In response to these values, Chris Keller, played by Jeff Schmidt, confronts Joe, saying that he thought his father was better than most men. Yet as Joe’s explanation begins to unravel at the end of Act 2 and Chris discovers the tragic truth, Schmidt makes us feel his shattered idealism. Together with Jackson, he plays one of the most dramatic father-son confrontation scenes of recent memory. Jeff Schmidt’s excellent performance as Chris closes with a response to his mother, who asks, “What more can we be?” He admonishes both her and us that we have a universal duty to be responsible to one another.
It is at this point that the technical glitch occurred in the Actors Bridge production. What was supposed to be a single sound effectalbeit one that that captures and distills the drama of the previous two hourssimply failed. While obvious to anyone who has previously read or seen the play, this one effect is mandatory if the play is to have the proper catharsis. In its absence, and even with the actor’s best improvisation, the audience is left uncomfortable and embarrassed. No matter how small the production budget, there is simply no excuse for this sort of failureespecially when it detracts from generally strong performances and an otherwise good staging.
The rest of the physical production was serviceable. Churches usually make good theaters, but the conversion of the St. Augustine Chapel to an adequate play-space clearly presented some unique challenges. Limited access to the stage floor was solved with a simple but very functional set. Minimal house lighting, coupled with a very steep “A-frame” ceiling, meant virtually no lighting positions. This problem was partially resolved by the installation of a truss, but as the truss contained less than a dozen-and-a-half lights, this solution resulted in rather flat lighting. In spite of all these shortcomings, though, the chapel was an intimate space; audience members could believe that they were sitting in the Keller’s backyard.
Mention should be made of some of other cast members, particularly Linda Speir, who played Kate Keller with a nice, distracted quality, and Elizabeth Bell, who played Ann Deever with an interesting mix of strength and need. Both Lewis Kemp, who played George Deever, and Milton Bagby, who played Dr. Bayliss, made their presence felt in the short time they were onstage.
Other than some opening-night jitters, All My Sons was well done. Assuming the Actors Bridge Ensemble has no other problems with the sound effects, their show is worth seeing.
So long Don. Your creative energy and encouragement were inspirational to me.
It was so great being one of those kids in Dayton.
I miss Iodine.
^ It's nice to see an official acknowledgement by management. Kristen Mcarther Miles (the girl…
How ironic that "Vandy radio" gets resurrected as a fictional station?! I was just glad…
Wonderful tribute to a wonderful man.