Roundabout Theatre’s solid and satisfying production of All My Sons is the play as Arthur Miller wrote it: no high concept, no interpretive gimmicks, just straightforward realism informed by two powerful actors: Tracy Letts as Joe Keller and Annette Bening as his wife, Kate.
The opening stage directions of All My Sons tell us that the play takes place in the “August of our era.” Although the events onstage take place in 1947, “our era” resonates chillingly: Consider the recent fatal crashes of the Boeing 737 MAX planes. Remember the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, when faulty O-rings caused the deaths of all seven people aboard? The central fact of the play’s plot is that Joe Keller allowed cracked cylinder heads to be shipped out from his factory during World War Two, causing 21 young pilots to die when their planes crashed. The painful and powerful lesson Joe has to learn is that those pilots were all his sons.
It begins with sepia-tinged black-and-white projections onto a scrim: We see and hear a storm, a tiny plane falling. This is Kate’s prophetic dream as she clings desperately to the idea that her son Larry, a pilot, is still alive after all these years. The curtain rises on a vividly-colored world. It’s like the reveal in The Wizard of Oz, only in reverse: The realistic world we live in is Technicolor, unlike dreams and old-fashioned newsreels.
Chris (Benjamin Walker, who conveys little of the moral complexity of the role) is the son who survived the war, albeit with an aching leg and a scarred back. He is now working in the family business, but he refuses to let Joe add “and Son” to the factory’s title. How much does he allow himself to know? He has invited Ann (Francesca Carpanini, whose voice and manner lack any softness or sweetness) to visit; she was, literally, the girl next door who was Larry’s sweetheart. We learn that Steve — Joe’s partner and Ann’s father — is in prison for the fraudulent manufacture, while Joe has been exonerated. The play’s dramatic conflict is triggered by the arrival of Steve’s son George (Hampton Fluker), also a war vet and now a lawyer.
There are neighbors: a cynic (Michael Hayden) and an optimist (Nehal Joshi)) and their wives, one dissatisfied (Chinasa Ogbuagu is a standout) and another (Jenni Barber) who is cheery; the set (designed by Douglas W. Schmidt) suggests a real neighborhood.
Director Jack O’Brien makes some outstanding decisions. For instance, he makes the whole cast and the audience wait while Joe silently reads a letter that is the key to the play’s crisis (and it is exactly right that Letts moves his lips as he reads, since much has been made of Joe’s lack of education). The directorial false note comes in the scenes between Ann and Joe— he seems creepily interested in her pretty legs, while she frequently fondles him and sits on his lap. Benning’s desperation as the terrified wife and mother is searing, and the impact of the final scene is — even when you know what’s coming — devastating.
In his autobiography, Timebends, Miller wrote about “the hand of the distant past reach[ing] out of its grave,” an image that pretty much explains the play. All My Sons involves guilt and greed and regret and, finally, taking responsibility; family drama, for Miller, is always a drama about the family of man.