Arthur Miller sure could write. In a presentation by the Roundabout Theatre Company, director Jack O’Brien has staged a new production of “All My Sons” that grasps the impact of Miller’s 1947 drama with fidelity to its tragic themes. One might wish that Miller’s take were obsolete by now. But the current Boeing crash story makes the play still relevant, and terrific performances realize anew Miller’s skills and the depth of his perceptions.
Coming shortly after the end of World War II, “All My Sons” unmasks the family secret of a businessman who knowingly sent out flawed aircraft during the war with resulting deaths of 21 American pilots. (Miller was inspired to write the play by a real-life wartime scandal.) The businessman put the blame on his partner, who has been jailed, with successive ramifications that make for a series of complexities and truths that must be revealed.
Douglas W. Schmidt has designed an impressive and functional set of neighboring houses on the outskirts of a midwestern town, with action taking place in the backyard of the Keller family dwelling. All hell will eventually break loose in that yard.
The businessman, Joe Keller, is played by Tracy Letts, who is giving one of the finest, most intense performances of his illustrious career. Keller’s life has been motivated by profit and his desire to build a future for his sons. One, Larry. an airman, has been missing in action and should logically be presumed dead. But Joe’s wife, Kate, refuses to believe it, and Annette Bening in portraying Kate is giving a powerful performance unlike any we have seen her do before.
The situation is complicated by the Kellers’ surviving son Chris being in love with Ann, who was the girlfriend of his missing brother. Benjamin Walker and Francesca Carpanini give poignancy to Chris and Ann so that one can care about what happens to them, all the more so since Kate is dead set against their possible marriage because it would thwart her obsession that her missing son is still alive and will come home.
Kate also knows the truth about what her husband did and that has been a simmering barrier tainting their marriage. Miller has stacked enough drama for more than one play. It is Ann’s father who has been imprisoned to take the fall for Joe, and she is not aware of the deception. Her angry brother, George is given a particularly sensitive performance by Hampton Fluker. George, who had been very close to the Kellers, has visited his father in prison and learned the truth and thus wants to spirit Ann away from Chris.
Meanwhile, there is the father-son battle between Joe and Chris, Joe being the pragmatic businessman who worships profits that he sees bringing stability and guaranteeing a future for his family, and Chris, the idealist, who wants to escape to pursue a different life, although he has always looked up to his father.
Among the other characters are neighbors Dr. Jim Bayliss (Michael Hayden), who would have preferred research to medical practice, and his resentful wife, Sue (Chinasa Ogbuagu), who worked to put him through med school. Here again, money is an important aspect of life, and she resents Chris for feeding her husband’s idealistic impulses.
Miller’s skill lies in the way the way in which he builds the drama, from its cozy beginning in pleasant surroundings, to the step by step conflicts and revelations, gradually escalating situations and emotions until the play resembles a Greek tragedy in full force. The parts Miller wrote are a goldmine for actors, and here, with colorblind casting, actors superbly get extensive dramatic mileage out of their roles. They earn the standing ovation given them, and it is only too bad that Arthur Miller isn’t alive today to stand alongside them for the ovation he deserves.
Director O’Brien merits one too for beautifully serving the play, and not doing what ego-feeding directors may do in trying to put a stamp on a play at the expense of what the author has created, as has sometimes happened to Miller. O’Brien succeeds brilliantly in giving us “All My Sons” as it should be done. At the American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street. Phone: 212-719-1300. Reviewed April 25, 2019.