I had hopes for Tennessee Repertory Theatre's new staging of Arthur Miller's 1947 play All My Sons (the precursor to the playwright's epic Death of a Salesman), and I wasn't disappointed. Director René Copeland's smartly assembled cast provides a group tour de force. The play has been on Copeland's professional bucket list for some time, perhaps providing extra motivation for gathering together such a talented and experienced ensemble.
Miller's tale of postwar travail, a rumination on business and personal ethics, was mounted locally by Actors Bridge Ensemble just a little over 18 months ago. But for those experiencing the play for the first time — or the first time in several years — there are consistent rewards in the performances, despite the story's sometimes contrived and dated plot points.
The drama concerns Joe Keller (Chip Arnold), a manufacturer whose partner went to jail three years earlier when he was blamed for allowing defective machine parts to be used in U.S. warplanes. Keller and his wife Kate (Ruth Cordell) have their own war-related trials, given that their son Larry never returned from a combat mission in the South Pacific. At curtain's rise, Ann Deever (Emily Landham), daughter of the jailed partner and formerly Larry's best girl, is back in the neighborhood — and suddenly in the romantic crosshairs of surviving Keller son Chris (Eric D. Pasto-Crosby).
What looks on the surface to be the Kellers' prosperous postwar bliss — an impression helped immeasurably by designer Gary Hoff's beautiful house setting — soon becomes a powder keg of bad memories and ominous accusations, especially when Ann's brother George (Patrick Waller) enters the Keller backyard armed with what appears to be the inconvenient truth about the past.
Miller's work is classically structured, and here its original three acts are pressed into two. Act 1 is an efficient setup with easy and entertaining dialogue, while Act 2 offers one emotionally charged scene after the other, including a tense tête-à-tête between Waller and Pasto-Crosby, a sharp and telling exchange between Landham and Holly Allen as a neighbor (both actresses making the most of their Rep debuts), plus Arnold's scenes with practically everyone, especially Cordell, whose pain-wracked readings evoke chills more than once. Nate Eppler, Peter Vann and Marin Miller provide solid support in substantial ancillary roles.
The terrific acting sustains the production and highlights the play's strengths, despite its status as a period piece reflecting old-fashioned attitudes toward women. Miller's working of the broader theme of practicality vs. idealism still manages to say something resonant about the gray moral areas of contemporary American life.
Tennessee Women's Theater Project's season opener, Trying, may be a much quieter exercise in conflict than All My Sons, but it's definitely an entertaining and thoughtful piece. It's also yet another local premiere from TWTP, as artistic director Maryanna Clarke again casts her literary net widely enough to emerge with something new and worthy for Nashville theatergoers.
Joanna McClelland Glass' play — originally presented in Chicago in 2004, then later in New York the same year — is based on her experience in 1967-68 serving as personal secretary to former U. S. Attorney General Francis Biddle. Biddle, who was also chief judge of the Nuremberg trials following World War II, is portrayed here in his rather crotchety declining last year at his Georgetown home.
Glass' fictional counterpart, Sarah Schorr, is the well-meaning yet determined 25-year-old heroine from the Canadian prairie, who's been hired to help organize the aging judge's work and correspondence, and to assist in compiling his memoirs.
How these two disparate characters alternately clash and harmonize is the play's heart. The late-1960s time frame lends itself to topical discussions of feminism, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., or even the wonders of the Dictaphone.
The play is carefully scripted and gently absorbing, but never overly sentimental. It benefits from the moving performances of its stars, Fred Mullen and Keri Pisapia, whose way with the point-counterpoint dialogue vividly defines their characters' strong personalities, while also dramatizing how trust is earned, the realities of the generation gap, and the cycle of life and death. There are also some very interesting and amusing discussions on language and poetry, two subjects that find the duo on common — if occasionally combative — ground.
Clarke's direction is sure-handed and well-paced, and the play's six neatly crafted scenes play out seamlessly over two acts. Trying runs through Oct. 16 at Looby Theater.
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