Some plays survive the test of time. Arthur Miller’s All My Sons is such a play.
And the production mounted by The George Washington University’s Department of Theatre and Dance makes that point poignantly clear.
Directed by Jodi Kanter, with an undergraduate cast and an MFA design team, All My Sons is as fresh today as it was when it first opened in 1947.
To be sure, the American town where the play takes place no longer exists: the suburbs have risen and the factory at the center of the play controversy has probably moved to Mexico.
And sure, the innocence that once labeled the all American white family no longer exists: the Civil Rights Movement, the War in Vietnam, and Watergate have long since gelded that beast.
But what hasn’t changed, and what is at the heart of this fiercely patriotic play, is the enduring clash between the drive to maximize profit and the need to take care of people. That clash, starkly drawn by Miller and reproduced in multiple throughout the play, colors every relationship, every life decision, every dream of the future, every wish to die.
That clash is America’s Achilles Heel.
The play opens the night before Ann Deever returns to her hometown. Played by Kaiylah Watts, this emotionally complex character with more baggage than you could possibly imagine, captures our attention the moment she steps on stage. She is the proper young lady whose heart was broken by her fiancé’s death in the War in the Pacific.
Ann has returned home to marry Chris Keller, her fiancé’s brother (no, there’s nothing too strange about this in small town America).
Chris is played by an engaging Dylan Trupiano. A college-educated WWII veteran, Chris is haunted not only by the horrors of war, but by the horrors of war profits.
Ominously, the night before Ann’s return, the tree planted in memory of her dead fiancé has come down during a storm. Kate, the mother, watched it crash while standing stoically on the Keller family porch.
Kate, played with tragic despair by Ashley Hanson, refuses to believe that her oldest son is dead. Her husband, Joe Keller (played with goofy avoidance by Drew Keavany), accepts this delusion.
In fact, delusion runs like a virus throughout the Keller and Deever families. It is the delusion that innocence breeds.
In fact, it is the delusion that innocence needs.
For at the heart of Miller’s tragedy is a secret, a secret hiding in plain view.
The Keller’s neighbors know the secret. Jim and Sue Bayliss know the truth; in fact, as played by William Linder and Amanda Fulton, they embody that truth. Frank and Lydia Lubey know the truth even though, as played by Zachary Aivazov and Hannah Sessler, they do everything possible to keep the truth hidden.
The only one who doesn’t know the truth is Bert, the neighbor boy played by a lively Tyler Smallwood. And his job is, ironically, to listen to what everyone is saying.
The only one who’s willing to confront the truth is Ann’s brother, George, given a hometown lawyerly presence by Steven Kelly.
Ms. Kanter keeps the play moving and her design team has created a cardboard cutout kind of world with newspaper foliage (designed by Xiao Xiao Wang, with lights by Molly Hall and costumes by Stacey Thomann Hamilton and sound by Samantha Gonzalez).
Many people might find Miller’s tragic sensibility off putting: you’ll find very little comedy here, not even that desperate kind of comedy where you laugh to keep from committing suicide.
You might be tempted to argue that a comic sensibility is a welcome addition to an America so deeply divided, but as the suicide rate has held fairly steady over the last 60 years that argument can’t really stand.
Maybe the time has come for tragedy.
Running Time: two hours and 10 minutes, plus an intermission
All My Sons plays through February 19, 2017, at The George Washington University’s Marvin Theatre – 800 21st Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 994-0995, or purchase them online.