By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star
Arthur Miller’s 1947 drama “All My Sons,” his first Broadway success, could be viewed as a warm-up to “Death of a Salesman,” and in it you see a fairly young playwright trying a bit too hard to be poetic and meaningful.
The well-acted production onstage at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre captures many of the play’s strengths and reflects most of its flaws.
Miller was 32 when this play about a family destroyed by corrosive secrets opened. So it’s no coincidence that his protagonist, Chris Keller, a World War II veteran struggling to find his emotional equilibrium, is also 32.
Chris is full of denial, angst and passion but central to the drama is his relationship with his 61-year-old father, Joe Keller, who may or may not have betrayed his business partner and caused the death of 21 American pilots by knowingly selling cracked cylinder heads to the government.
Casting a shadow over the action is the memory of Chris’ brother Larry, who died in the war; his mother’s insistence that Larry is alive and will one day return; Chris’ love for his brother’s girlfriend, Ann, daughter of Joe’s now-imprisoned business partner; and her brother George’s unambiguous accusation that his father is innocent and that Joe’s the one who should be behind bars.
If that sounds rather convoluted, it is. Miller has set all the action in the Kellers’ backyard, and he stretches credibility at times to find reasons for all the characters to converge there.
This is a well-made play of the post-World War II era, which means, among other things, that Act 1 is basic carpentry. Miller carefully sets up all that comes after intermission, which is where the real play happens. That’s where we get the revelations, searing confessions, emotional shockwaves and expressions of love and rage.
The production at the MET, directed by Karen Paisley, showcases some fine performances but can’t quite overcome the play’s creakiness. Indeed, the production itself is a little creaky. Somebody needs to give that screen door a shot of 3-in-One oil to tone down its rusty hinges, which occasionally threaten to drown out dialogue.
Despite the play’s laborious, almost mechanical effort to evoke Greek tragedies, it does offer a glimpse into what certainly was an issue in the years after the war: How did returning veterans reconcile, if they could, the lives sacrificed with the new age of American consumerism? How did they feel about businessmen back home who used the war as an excuse to make money?
There are two fundamental reasons to see the MET production — the performances of James Wright as Joe Keller and Licia Watson as his wife, Kate Keller.
Wright has never been asked to stretch his dramatic chops like this before, and he meets the challenge. The character’s bluffness in the early going gradually gives way to abject despair, and Wright negotiates that arc with authority.
Watson, like Wright, is mainly known for her work in musical comedy, but here she demonstrates a capacity for serious acting that is at times startling. The emotional intensity in Act 2 is palpable.
Taylor St. John occasionally seems unsure of what’s going on inside Chris’s head, but his final confrontation with Joe and its aftermath are an opportunity for him to unleash explosive, raw emotions.
Natalie Liccardello, as Ann Deever, the dead brother’s girlfriend, rises to the challenge of the second act’s dramatic demands. Her revelatory scene with Kate, in which Ann shares the devastating contents of a letter she received from Larry Keller before he died, is about as good as it gets.
Doogin Brown makes what amounts to a cameo in Act 2 as Ann’s brother, George, who wants to settle scores because of his father’s unjust imprisonment. Brown’s relatively brief stage time is intense and memorable.
Competent supporting performances are registered by Bob Paisley and Karen Paisley as neighbors — Dr. Bayliss and his wife — as well as Matt Griggs and Courtney Stephens as a young couple next door, and Angel Reese as Bert, a neighborhood kid.
The scenic design, credited to Karen Paisley and Donovan Kidd, is simple but effective — although what appears to be green carpet representing the backyard grass is distracting, especially the dull squeak of actors’ shoes rubbing against it. Gregory Casparian’s lighting design is a plus, and the costumes — credited to Paisley and Watson — fulfill the script’s basic demands.
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