People’s Light & Theater Co. takes a fresh look at family conflict in ‘All My Sons’

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For Digital First Media

At the end of World War II the United States dominated the world, ready or not.
To accomplish this required the effort and sacrifice during the war of some 12 million U.S. servicemen and women, more than 900,000 of whom were African-American, and 24 million defense workers, of whom over 2 million were also African-American. These military members and workers were for the most part segregated in training, on the battlefield and in the factory.
The U.S. dominated culturally after the war. U.S. movies, music, art and theater spread worldwide. Racial segregation deeply affected these endeavors as well. But in theater there was for years one particular conscience that shaped and guided the stage towards inclusion, independence and social investigation – that of playwright Arthur Miller. Miller’s works are revived again and again here and abroad because there is no comparable figure from that era in modern theater who better portrayed our successes and our failures.
Miller’s conscience was expressed in specific yet timeless themes using theatrical prose both melodic and sharp that cuts audiences and then withholds a bandage of self-pity so the wound can heal cleanly.
“How may a man make of the outside world a home?” Miller asked in a 1959 essay “The Family in Modern Drama.” For its 41st season opener People’s Light & Theater Company in Malvern chose to combine Miller’s drama about families making their way in postwar America with an examination of racial segregation and exclusion with a new production of his drama All My Sons.

A scene from "All My Sons." Photo by Mark Garvin

A scene from “All My Sons.”
Photo by Mark Garvin

Using an all African-American cast for All My Sons is not new. But PLTC and director Kamilah Forbes have created a fresh look at family conflict and class by inviting back many cast members from last season’s Forbes-directed PLTC production of August Wilson’s Fences. Thus, the lives and challenges of two African-American families and neighborhoods are linked, adding another dimension to Miller’s 1947 Tony Award-winning play. It’s not necessary to have seen Fences, but those who did will have a fuller appreciation of the affect postwar prosperity had on black communities down the decades.
Joe Keller, domineering but likable, was acquitted during the war of manufacturing faulty aircraft parts. His partner, Steve Deever, took the rap for Joe and is serving time in jail. Joe’s elder son was killed in action and the other son, Chris, intends to marry Ann, his brother’s ex-fiancé who is also Deever’s daughter.
The first act is a natural and free-flowing examination of family life that begins to show cracks when Joe’s past resurfaces as Chris presses his courtship of Ann. Despite a comfortable life in a large suburban house the Kellers are slowly falling apart, their decline watched closely (and not always sympathetically) by their neighbors. Joe’s moral failure in a moment of crisis was compounded by allowing his partner to accept the punishment. Now the ailing Deever is no longer willing to be the fall guy. Kate Keller is convinced her missing son is still alive. Chris must decide if his long defense of his father’s actions was just another illusion.
Part of Miller’s dramatic skill in exposing Joe’s failure is to ask the audience to consider it ours as well. We can only speculate on what percentage of business people now or 70 years ago would have accepted flawed products, made a quick fix and sent them along. We can only guess how many would choose to shut down the line, risk the ruin of their life’s endeavors and everything they had strived and sacrificed for. In the immediate past we have watched how General Motors with its faulty ignition switches and BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill led to initial cover-ups that only delayed the inevitable.
All My Sons is deeply perceptive but not always consistent. There are moments, at the anguished peaks of Joe’s anger and self-loathing and Chris’s sudden reversal of feeling for his father when the play’s own machinery shows its cracks. “Miller’s prose sometimes slips into a sentimental rhythm of despair that could be convicted of glibness,” the critic Kenneth Tynan once noted. But it is the solidity and precision of that same prose that prevents it from becoming maudlin.
Director Forbes wisely brought back an outstanding cast from the PLTC production of Fences. At the heart of this drama are Michael Genet as Joe and PLTC company member Melanye Finister as his wife, Kate. Genet skillfully captures Joe’s very human mixture of goodness, bluster, love and selfishness. Finister wraps herself up in Kate’s obsession about her missing son’s eventual return and wears it like armor. Together they are a study in denial.
Ruffin Prentiss brings a relentless and desperate honesty and charm to the role of Chris Keller. As Ann Deever, Margaret Ivey matches him in passion and a determination not to be brought down by the Keller family collapse. Brian Anthony Wilson, as the sympathetic Dr. Bayliss, and Joliet Harris, as his perceptive and tart-tongued wife Sue, are a fine and funny mirror image of what Joe and Kate could have become if they’d been luckier or less ambitious. Akeem Davis as George Deever manages to be both relentless and very human in a difficult role as Steve Deever’s son who arrives to administer the final injection of truth to this ailing family.
Troy Hourie’s set consists of paper-thin house facades bordered by artificial flowers and trees and backed by an ominous wall of sky resembling hardwood panels, panels that at night permit stars to show through like cheap costume jewelry. Justin Ellington’s original music is a smooth and persistent counterpoint to the crisis unfolding in the Keller’s backyard of dreams.
IF YOU GO: All My Sons runs through Oct. 4 at People’s Light, 39 Conestoga Road in Malvern. For tickets call 610-644-3500 or go to peopleslight.org

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