By ALVIN KLEIN
Published: March 10, 1996
IF economic terror and moral indifference were ever presaged by a playwright, the handwriting on the wall belonged to Arthur Miller.
No contemporary dramatist has had a deeper grasp of the corrupting power of the dollar bill. By intuiting an emotional through-line between the idolization of materialism and the toppling of the family, Mr. Miller was foreshadowing the erosion of the middle class.
Given the modern overtones of a country in free-floating crisis, it is sobering to come upon "All My Sons," the breakthrough play of a prophetic voice, in what is essentially a 50th-anniversary production by the American Stage Company. But there won't be trumpets to herald the occasion, for Mr. Miller, who turned 80 last year -- another milestone dutifully commemorated, if not celebrated, in this country -- is revered in London but disregarded by America's commercial theater.
One reason may be that the cosmically involved concerns of his searing early dramas gave way to the inner-directed conflicts and pretensions of his later ones. Still, "All My Sons," in revival, was a commercial failure on Broadway in 1987, as was Miller's last effort, the muddled "Broken Glass" in 1994.
Mr. Miller's importance as a playwright of conscience flowered with "All My Sons" and positively peaked with his next play, "Death of a Salesman." A 1950's retelling of Ibsen ("An Enemy Of The People") seemed inevitable. An investigation of accusatory madness ("The Crucible," now being filmed in a star-filled Hollywood version) remains his work most widely produced nationwide.
That the best of Miller still reverberates in small theaters was startlingly evident on a recent trip to California, where "All My Sons" has been selling out (and was extended) in a highly praised professional production, directed by Elina de Santos, produced by the Odyssey Theater Ensemble in West Los Angeles.
A T American Stage, the director, Sondra Lee, once a well-known musical-comedy performer, builds a sense of the ominous from the very first lines: "There's always bad news." "What's today's calamity?" Ms. Lee shapes the elements of a tragedy as if it were a mystery. Evasions dart in and out, tantalizingly. Truths surface and withdraw, until the house of Keller caves in, inexorably. Even the play's symbolic allusions (the appearance of the light once a dead son's tree has fallen; stars going out when another son's idealism dies) are naturally fused into a transcendent overview of a play that can be narrowly perceived as a primer on ethics in the postwar marketplace.
In a fine ensemble, Don Peoples (Joe Keller) is the very model of a double-talking businessman for whom compromise is second nature but double-dealing comes first. All too convincingly, he says, "I ignore what I got to ignore," before the foulness of his misdeeds and the rationalizations of his cover-ups erupt. Having "ignored" the shipment of defective planes to the Air Force that resulted in the deaths of 21 pilots, Joe says he was building the business for his sons. "I did it for you" is his excuse.
Then there's Lee Bryant's crafty display of charm-as-camouflage in the role of Kate, delusional wife and monster mother, who knows that what keeps her family together is a necessary lie. Both Joe and his unseen partner, the fall guy, represent the other side of "the little man," Miller's oft-repeated phrase that would reach a classic consummation in Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman."
As neighboring supporting players, Susan Aston seethes (also charmingly) with the resentment of Sue, the good doctor's acquisitive wife, and Sarah Baker gives a graceful performance that won't submit to the usually overdone giggles that overtake Lydia next door. Daniel McDonald as the Kellers' idealistic son, Holly Cate as his fiancee and Brian Dykstra as her brother are in sizzling dramatic concert.
It's as if "All My Sons" were orchestrated, all sections in tune. Ms. Lee's complete interpretation, lucid and nonjudgmental, underscores Miller's themes -- retribution, purification and responsibility to the universe -- in an engrossing and powerful staging of a heartbreaking drama. If only it could be dismissed as a period piece from which we could turn away, untouched, unbothered and removed from the inconvenience of reflection.
ALL MY SONS American Stage Company Fairleigh Dickinson University, Teaneck
Through next Sunday. Performances: today and next Sunday at 2:30 P.M.; Wednesday through Saturday at 8 P.M. (201) 692-7744
Copyright © 1992 Elina de Santos Director/Coach - All Rights Reserved.