November 6, 2015
The Virginia Stage Company’s production of Arthur Miller’s award-winning postwar play, All My Sons, begins with Kate Smith’s iconic voice singing “God Bless America.” The lights go up to reveal the back door of an unseen house, a grassy backyard strewn with white wicker lawn furniture, a flagpole flying the Stars and Stripes, and a slender tree snapped by a violent storm. It’s a metaphor for the fragility of the American dream, and the lengths to which people will go to keep their self-delusions intact.
It’s three and a half years after World War II. Christopher McHale plays feisty, energetic Joe Keller, whose factory provided faulty airplane cylinder heads to the military. Twenty-one pilots were killed, and Joe put the blame on his partner Steve, who remains in jail, protesting his innocence.
Joe’s wife Kate, played with determined strength by Kate Udall, refuses to admit that their son Larry, missing for three years, won’t be coming home. The broken tree was planted as Larry’s memorial, but the storm has destroyed it. For Kate, Larry has to be alive, or her life of self-deception will fall apart.
Jeff Barry brings a pleasant optimism to the role of Joe and Kate’s other son Chris, whose idealism makes everyone want to be better than they are. He’s been corresponding with Ann, daughter of Joe’s jailed partner; they intend to marry, even though she was his brother’s girlfriend—but that’s exactly how Larry and Chris’s mother wants it to stay. Ann, played winningly by Chiara Motley, visits the Keller home (she used to live next door); she knows Larry’s dead—and why and how—and after three years, it’s time to move on with her life.
The Kellers’ next-door neighbor Jim Bayliss is a successful doctor, annoyed by his patients’ demands; John Cauthen gives him a calm Mister Rogers demeanor and an underlying restlessness. He wants to do research, but it pays less; and his meddling wife Sue, wants none of that. Sylvie Green Shapiro gives Sue a tiny, piercing voice and a nasty-nice intensity.
The neighbors on the other side are Frank, pleasantly played by John Michael Jalonen, with cheerful happy Hannah Hughes as his wife, Lydia. Frank never got drafted, so his and his wife’s sunny lives have basically been untouched by the war. Frank does a horoscope to bolster Kate’s hope that Larry still lives. It’s not really a kindness.
Eric Harrell is Ann’s rather stuffy brother George, a lawyer, who wants her to visit their father, who still claims innocence. George tries to keep Ann from marrying the son of the real culprit. (Maybe in 1946, a brother could try to strongarm his sister away from a marriage . . . but now? Awkward . . .)
For the whole first act, every voice but Joe’s seems to be on the same, fairly high one-note pitch—perhaps to underscore the unreality of their lives. But over the next two acts, the voices change, too, as reality, relentless as termites, destroys the characters’ facades, baring their secret shames and demanding responsible action.
Chris Hanna’s direction subtly moves the action along even in the talky bits, and makes a satisfying dichotomy between the almost dream-like first act and the explosions that follow.
Narelle Sissons’ understated set works very well, allowing good movement; and Jeni Schaefer’s costumes are spot on, for the most part—especially the shoes, which are hard to get right. The lighting, however, turns Joe’s pinstripe suit a very peculiar color—but it’s a minor distraction.
A few rows behind me was someone whose cell phone kept humming with text alerts. Whoever it was may think those alerts are “silent.” They are not.
From the Other Side of the Footlights, I’m M.D. Ridge.
You can see the Virginia Stage Company's production of All My Sons through November 15th.