All My Sons was Arthur Miller’s first Broadway success as a playwright, and its brilliance and beauty are still clear after 66 years. But in live theater, a play is only as good as its presentation. Hobbled by some unclear direction and generally weak acting, a new production at Ross Valley Players—despite an occasionally strong lead performance by Craig Christiansen—ultimately fails to capture the power, or much of the authenticity, of Miller’s play.
The post-WWII setting of the early masterpiece, driven by Miller’s piercing questions about morality and business during wartime, carries a strong contemporary resonance. When done well, with a skilled cast up to the challenges of Miller’s rich, multitextured language, All My Sons can be devastating. Under the direction of Caroline Altman, who’s had success in the world of opera—and whose best ideas are the pop musical interludes between scenes—RVP’s uninspired staging is consistently flat.
Joe Keller (Christiansen) is a force of nature. A self-educated man, he built his own manufacturing empire through hard work and a canny sense of business. Three years after his son Larry, an Air Force pilot, disappears in World War II, Joe finds himself caught between the desperate hopes of his wife, Kate (Kristine Ann Lowry), who insists that Larry is still alive, and his other son, Chris (Francis Serpa), who announces his plans to marry Larry’s former fiancée, Ann (Amber Collins Crane).
Hanging over everything are the wartime deaths of 21 pilots, whose planes crashed due to faulty equipment manufactured by Joe’s factory. While many in the town suspect Joe of having knowingly sold the damaged parts to the military, it is his longtime business partner Steve—Ann’s father—who is serving a prison sentence for the crime.
As written, revelations unfold slowly, almost casually, at first, but the intensity picks up with the arrival of Ann’s brother George (Philip Goleman), a lawyer who believes he has evidence proving that Joe let Steve take the fall for his own mistake. Ann, too, has a secret she’s been keeping, and it has the power to turn everything the family believes upside down.
Miller’s carefully crafted writing, in RVP’s version, is washed out by a lot of unmodulated hollering, made worse by a number of unfortunate line readings indicating that the actors don’t always understand what their characters are saying.
That’s a shame, because in All My Sons, Arthur Miller is saying a lot.
Rating (out of 5): ★★