THEATER;A Postwar Message For the Millennium



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

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