The profoundly affecting human drama in Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” can be easily overwhelmed by the play’s ideological diatribe. Rachel Watson’s ’03 production, however, succeeds in keeping the cultural critique from dominating its more stirring personal tragedies. Only occasionally does she get caught in the unavoidable trap of melodrama due to the high emotional content of the piece.
The play first opened in 1947, directed by Elia Kazan; it is set in the same year, and the characters are clearly struggling with an upheaval in their moral systems after their war experiences. Miller uses their dilemma to critique the greedy capitalism of the American dream.The driving force of the play comes from the personal conflict of his tragic hero, Joe Keller, who must choose which to prioritize between his obligation to humanity and his material obligation to his family.
Joe became wealthy during the war manufacturing airplane parts in his plant, but got into trouble when it was discovered that defective parts from his warehouse had killed 21 American fighter pilots. He and his partner were arrested, but he was released after telling the court that his partner bore all the responsibility for the mishap. This ensured a prosperous, and therefore happy, life for his typical Midwestern family, except for the shattering loss of one of their two sons in the war.
The success of the current production is due in large part to the remarkable performance of Nicholas Tucci ’04 as Joe. Tucci sensitively captures the simplicity of this “average Joe” and the desperation with which he clings to his conviction that there is nothing above family. The subtlety with which he plays out the unraveling of Joe’s ideals endows his character with a deep pathos and gracefully avoids over-emotionality.
Hali Augusztiny ’03 as Joe’s wife Kate is the play’s other gem. She is chillingly convincing as the disturbed mother in such psychotic denial that she keeps her dead son’s room exactly as he left it, regularly polishing the shoes he left in his closet. Her obstinate irrationality is both frightening and touching when she argues with her remaining son, Chris (Ben Woodlock ’02). “Your brother’s alive,” she says. “Because if he’s dead, your father killed him. Do you understand me now? God does not let a son be killed by his father!”
The play does not offer much in the way of hope. The blossoming romance between Chris and Ann (Grace Kuckro ’03) seems doomed from the start. To begin with, she is his dead brother’s ex-fiancee; she also happens to be the daughter of Joe’s former partner, who is still in prison because of Joe’s testimony.
Ann’s brother George (Randolph Frazier ’03) plays a crucial role in the climax of the story, both as a foil for Chris and a catalyst for the unearthing of key secrets, but Frazier does not quite fulfill the demands of the part. He is too caught up in the nervousness and distraction of his character, leading the audience to be more distracted than swayed by his performance.
Other limited characters are the fault of Miller’s reliance on stereotypes to create a small-town America feel — including the perfect housewife, Lydia, the catty neighbor, Sue, and the irritatingly cute neighborhood boy scout, Bert — who are transparently one-dimensional aspects of the superficial life Miller denounces.
Another distracting element of the production is the set, which is minimally constructed and does not adequately fill the Off Broadway space. It leaves the actors dwarfed by the expanse of stage and creates huge gaps of open space between them.
An essential detail of the stark set, however, is the pitiful, storm-battered tree in the front right corner, which was planted in memory of Joe and Kate’s missing son and later split in two the night before the first scene.
The tree ties the play together, representing each character’s struggle to remain standing against the truth from which they’ve hidden and foretelling the level to which they will be reduced by the end. Thanks to the moving performances of the two leads, at the end of the show the audience too feels represented by the tree’s condition.
All My Sons
Off Broadway Theater
Friday 7 p.m., 9:30 p.m.