‘All My Sons’ highlights painful secrets from the past
Vagabond Players’ All My Sons, expertly directed by Michael Byrne Zemarel, is a masterful staging of a classic work by one of the great American playwrights, Arthur Miller. The show kicked off the 101st season of continuous production for Vagabond, and revealed a recent renovation (including new seats, lights, and fresh paint).
The play asks many questions: How does one deal with loss? What things can or cannot be forgiven? How does one leave a negative past behind?
Manufacturing-plant owner Joe Keller (played with passion by Jeff Murray) and his family, in post-World War II America, August 1946 to be exact, faced those questions and more as they struggled with the apparent (they hope and pray not) loss of a family member, in this case Larry, one of two sons, presumed the victim of a plane crash off a coast in China during the war.
Taking place in the back yard of the Keller’s, one of the central questions of the play is: Is Joe responsible for causing 121 P-40 Warhawks (planes famous for their distinctive, painted-on shark teeth) to crash, due to haste and negligence in building the planes?
Joe’s wife, Kate (the wonderful Carol Conley Evans), was a character-study of a person who could not let go of a shattered hope and live again. She insisted to everyone that her son Larry was still alive. She repeatedly mentioned newspapers stories about veterans coming back after several years of being M.I.A.
Anne Deever (played with verve and energy by Rachel Roth), the daughter of Joe’s former business partner and neighbor, Steve Deever (who took the blame for producing defective cylinder heads for the P-40s and was sent to prison), didn’t just overturn the apple cart when she appeared; she split it in half. Though she had been Larry’s girl, she had been burning a torch for Joe’s son Chris for two years and came to the Keller’s intent on marrying him. This greatly upset Kate, who could not stand the thought of anything threatening her idea that Larry is still alive. It was also Kate who feared that if Chris married Anne, that would be figuratively declaring Larry dead.
But Chris (well played by Sean Kelly) would have none of that. He’s the character most ready to get on with the business of living, the most willing to let his brother rest in peace. But Chris had inner-gremlins of his own: he had lost most of the company (at least 100 men) he had commanded in the war. “It takes time to toss that off,” he told Anne. Chris was very much a man about honor and duty, pointing out that his fellow soldiers “killed themselves for each other.”
There were many neighborhood characters in the show, which at first seemed superfluous, but proved crucial. Because Joe was an employer and go-getter, people seemingly loved to do things for the Kellers. For instance, neighbor Frank Lubey (Nick Cherone) prattled on about Larry’s horoscope, which portended that he could not die on his favored day.
Frank’s high-spirited wife Lydia, a mother of three (played with spirit by Barbara Madison Hauck, recently seen in Vagabond’s The Lion in Winter), provided the Keller’s with a smiling face and a touch of humor.
Dr. Jim Bayliss, well-played with an understated cheeriness by Thom Sinn, and his wife Sue Bayliss (the powerful Kathryn Falcone) had opposing views of the Keller’s. Jim was a helpful, cheerful jester to the Keller’s, but Sue was another story. “People give him credit for being smart [but not being innocent],” Sue told Anne of the negative gossip about Joe, in the unnamed town.
Joe, was convinced that his neighbors liked him and didn’t hold him responsible for the deaths of the play’s titular 121 “all my sons.”.Joe pointed out about the social activity in his back yard, “If you play cards with a man, you know he can’t be a murderer.”
The Second Act brought Anne’s brother, George (played by the always outstanding David Shoemaker, who also appeared recently in Vagabond’s The Lion in Winter) into the mix. Recently having met with his father in prison and furious about his sister marrying Chris, he was determined to pin the blame of the man responsible for manufacturing 121 cracked cylinder heads that caused 121 planes to go down. Persistent as a blood hound, Shoemaker was a dynamo of repressed, righteous anger. His smoldering scenes between him and Kelly were pure dynamite.
As the show moved on to its Third Act, many secrets were revealed about either hidden or repressed facts. Ultimately, there was a showdown between Chris’ loyalty-world view and his father Joe’s practical-world view that produced the play’s most dramatic moments. The show kept evoking the question: Can everyone ever be set free by the truth?
Zemarel, also recently in The Lion in Winter as the Tyrion Lannister-like Geoffrey, kept the pace and energy at a high level throughout. The knock-out verbal battles between Chris and George, and Joe and Chris, were pulse-raising.
Samuel Dye is a rising star, who delivers a strong performance as the neighborhood kid, Bert, who wanted to be a policeman, and was “deputized” in a way, by Joe.
I loved Bush Greenbeck design of a house that went up two stories, and had a “let’s move in” look, complete with working lights on the second floor. I loved Shoemaker’s suit and Sinn’s vintage 1920s style “straw boater” hat (a real life family heirloom).
Ultimately this All My Sons is an excellent production of a play about moving on from the past and letting go, and the tragedies caused by not doing so. It’s absolutely a winner.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.
Note: Vagabond Players will celebrate its anniversary at a gala October 16th at nearby Admiral Fell Inn – 888 South Broadway, in Baltimore, MD.