Saturday, February 24, 2007

opening-night review of *All My Sons*

at Spokane Civic Theatre’s Main Stage through March 10

As performed by Wes Deitrick with a guttural voice and limp, Joe Keller — the central character in Arthur Miller’s *All My Sons* (at the Civic through March 10) — carries a slightly menacing edge to his man-next-door neighborliness. Keller, we gradually find out, is implicated in a World War II-era scandal involving the sale of defective airplane parts that led to the deaths of 21 American pilots.

But could he actually be implicated in such a sordid business? Could Joe Keller — family man, successful business owner, practically a personification of the American Dream — really be guilty of murder?

Even from the start, Deitrick waggles his hands instead of pointing directly at things, as if to suggest Keller’s indecisiveness. With a dark grin smearing his face, Deitrick sits to one side as others discuss the details of the case that for years he’s been trying to elude. His business partner remains in prison even after Keller got himself exonerated. Was justice actually served?
Deitrick whittles chunks of wood and remains silent; he brandishes a paring knife against the apples that lie helpless in his hand. Small details, but telling ones: The rage simmers just below the surface, and while we may think it’s aimed at his former next-door neighbor and business partner, soon it becomes apparent that Keller’s raging at himself.

One playful-kidding exchange with his son Chris (Damon C. Mentzer) had the right edge of implied rage in it, with Deitrick’s coiled fist pressing against Mentzer’s cheek uncomfortably long. The moment pulled a veneer of pleasantry over father-son animosities that we sensed but couldn’t yet figure out. Yet Deitrick’s accompanying tirade, considered vocally, seemed weak alongside the strength of the physical acting.

And this was one of several moments in director Jessica McLaughlin Sety’s show that didn’t carry their full emotional or tragic weight: the cattiness of a next-door neighbor, the grief of the dead brother’s girlfriend when she first has to impress upon others the finality of his death, the repressive depths to which a mother will sometimes thrust her absolute refusal to believe that her son might be dead, the righteous thirst for vengeance by the son of an unjustly accused man. All of these sequences lacked intensity or failed to be convincing. And yet somehow McLaughlin Sety’s production manages to be consistently absorbing for its more than two-and-a-half-hour length.

Watch Deitrick, for example, when his wife Kate (Kathleen Malcolm) first makes clear that she knows about his guilt: Slouching in a chair, abortive sneers crossing his face, Deitrick turns away in deep repression, an index finger raised to his lips in a self-silencing gesture.

Some of this contrast — between moments that are unconvincing and then turn electrifying — is due to the cast’s achievement in acting and some to the power of Miller’s script. With the character of the son (who would have been easy to typify as a straight-arrow idealist), Mentzer shows us Chris’s vulnerability and naiveté. From his first appearance in pleated trousers, clutching the Sunday paper with confidence, to our final image of him crumpled in grief, Mentzer traces a decline — from idealism to disillusionment — that’s convincing. As Kate, Malcolm demonstrates how much energy it takes to maintain belief in a set of lies; repression like hers would suck the life right out of anybody.

With all the references to fate and guilt and the enmity of neighboring families, it felt like Greek tragedy played in the flouncy dresses and double-breasted suits of America in the 1940s. (Costume designers Susan Berger and Jan Wanless make sure that when Kari Mueller’s fiancée or Mentzer’s upright junior manager need to look polished and clean — not guilt-ridden or unsure — they do.) Peter Hardie’s set design — goldenrod clapboard houses, looming back fences, garbage cans just around the corner of the back stoop — provides an arena for some dark-night-of-the-soul self-examination — and manages to look romantic in the late-night scenes as well.

Miller was only 31 when *All My Sons* premiered on Broadway, and he was still learning his craft. He lays on the symbols a bit thick (a child’s game, a windblown tree) but he could also generate arresting phrases in a play about repression (“a talent for ignoring things”) and the post-war prosperity of those with survivor guilt (“just loot with blood on it”). In a somewhat similar way, this production at the Civic sometimes displays its excesses. McLaughlin Sety’s blocking can be excessively stagy (Mentzer on a raised platform for a speech about manliness, a woman standing at attention midway between two characters vying for control over her). But the biggest emotional wallop arrives where it should, in the third-act finale, and the emphasis throughout on such themes as repression and the impossibility of wholly untainted profits was well placed.

On Monday in Miami, a man named George Myles Jr. will be sentenced in federal court. His offense? Lying about the safety of airplane parts that he had sold to the Department of Defense. The parts were “flight-critical: their failure could be potentially catastrophic and/or cause serious damage to aircraft.”

In a time of Iraq war profiteering by Halliburton and other companies — and 60 years after it was first performed — Miller’s *All My Sons* still has an eerie resonance. We hold up the dollar as an almighty god, forgetting that all the men and women who have died in Iraq — Republican and Democrat, Shia and Sunni, all of them — are linked inextricably to our own lives. Wealth, family, nation … men like Joe Keller need to learn that there is a world beyond even these noble values, and that it is populated by all our daughters, all our sons.


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