It’s odd that Intiman Theatre chose to present All My Sons as its first Arthur Miller play ever. Although Miller is undoubtedly a giant among American playwrights, All My Sons is far from his best play, only the second one he ever wrote, and no match for his later efforts, Death of a Salesman and The Crucible.
At its core, All My Sons is about the corrupting power of money, a theme consistent with Miller’s leftist leanings. It’s based on the true story of an Ohio manufacturer whose daughter informed on him for selling faulty parts to the U.S. military during World War II. When Miller read the story in the newspaper, he decided it might provide the basis for the commercial success he needed after the complete failure of his first play.
Miller’s gamble paid off. All My Sons, which tells essentially the same story as the one Miller read about, was well-received when it opened in 1947. Directed by Elia Kazan, it ran for 328 performances on Broadway and won both the New York Drama Critics’ Award and the Tony Award. It also caught the attention of the House Un-American Activities Committee and was one of the reasons Miller was called before that committee.
Despite its success, All My Sons has a number of significant flaws, including an overabundance of melodramatic moments and extraneous characters whose story lines bring the play’s forward thrust to a momentary halt. Even so, in the hands of a talented cast, this play is as relevant today as it was more than 60 years ago, with the power to move us to contemplate one of the most important moral issues of our, or any, time — how far should we go to protect our family and ensure its security?
The key to the play’s capacity to force that question lies in the main character, Joe Keller. Keller allows defective airplane parts to be sent from his factory, then accuses his business partner, Steve Deever, of responsibility when 21 pilots are killed. Though the imprisoned Steve is never seen, the tragedy of his life hovers over Keller and the play as a whole, eventually leading to the dissolution of the family stability that Keller has worked so hard to preserve. Though Keller’s son Chris doesn’t turn him in, the effect of Chris’ discovery of his father’s treachery is even more devastating.
Although Chuck Cooper does a fine job as Joe in the play’s early scenes, his ultimate acceptance of his guilt is not crushing as it should be. It is Reginald André Jackson as his son Chris who dominates their pivotal confrontation. Chris’ accusation — ''Is that as far as you can see, the business? Don't you live in the world?'' — is far more searing than Joe’s efforts to defend himself.
Part of the problem is that Cooper consistently swallows his words, often letting the last syllables drop off. But a larger issue is that Cooper is simply not able to express the conflicting emotions that tear at him in the face of losing his son’s respect and affection.
Another weak link in the cast is Shanga Parker as Steve Deever’s son, George. It is George who forces open the truth about Joe, but Parker doesn’t give George the force of personality that Miller’s words require. Parker also lacks the ability to portray the conflict George feels between destroying a family he’s been so close to and the need to vindicate his own father. As a result, his scenes fall flat emotionally rather than being among the most harrowing of the play.
Jackson, on the other hand, is masterful in his depiction of Chris’ evolution from devoted to devastated son. Whether playing the nervous lover as he courts his future wife or dealing with his fury upon discovering the truth of his father’s story, Jackson is believable and true. Margo Moorer does an excellent job as Joe’s wife, Kate, and her complicity in Joe’s deception is completely understandable through her portrayal of a matron trying to hold her family together at any cost.
It is worth mentioning that director Valerie Curtis-Newton has chosen to cast the Keller and Deever families as African-American and to change the play’s location to Seattle. These changes are innocuous and don’t affect the drama one way or another. But Curtis-Newton’s direction creates other problems. For one thing, the set of the Keller home in this All My Sons is far too modest to convey the Keller family’s wealth, which is central to Miller’s story. Without the visual cues of a fancy home, the script’s frequent references to the financial status of the Kellers don’t make sense.
More importantly, Curtis-Newton’s basic interpretation of what Miller is saying is misguided. In her program notes, Curtis-Newton writes that she sees the core question Miller poses as: How do we choose between self-interest and the greater civic good? This interpretation misses the fundamental moral dilemma that Joe Keller faces — namely, should he confess to what he knows is a crime at the risk of losing everything he has worked for?
This is not a matter of civic good but rather of personal integrity: knowing right from wrong and being willing to act on that knowledge. That is a far more compelling theme and one many of us face at some point in our lives.
If you go: All My Sons, through April 17 at Intiman Theatre, 201 Mercer St., Seattle, 206-269-1900. Tickets cost $25 to $55 and are available at the box office, by phone, or online.