"Attention must be paid."
That most famous line comes from Arthur Miller's masterpiece Death of a Salesman, but it's the only appropriate way to describe the Alley Theatre's superlative production of his first big hit, All My Sons (1947). If you're unfamiliar with Miller, America's lion of the theater, everything about him is contained in this work. He was 30 years old when the play premiered on Broadway, and Miller's life and career would never be the same again. Sons brought him what he sought most -- recognition -- and gave him his distinct voice, something he never lost.
The play is unabashedly theatrical -- drama with a capital D -- with whiffs of Ibsen's kitchen-sink realism and heaps of '30s Group Theatre social consciousness and bleeding heart. But when you pare it down, the play is a searing portrait of a placid and seemingly content family whose deep, dark secrets slowly surface with ever scalding consequences until the normal family, trying so hard to keep a steady tack, is utterly wrecked. Guilt, contrition and fatal flaws drop like thunderbolts as Sons careens on an emotional collision course. Cherished memories, like sainted relics in the hands of heretics, will be smashed and sullied. A man's good intentions are nothing more than lame excuses for egregious behavior. Sons vs. fathers; mothers vs. fathers; personal greed vs. the communal good. It's like small-scale Greek tragedy brought down into a backyard.
Sons is wondrously old-fashioned, a slice of life boiled down to its essence: a well-made play with a vengeance, crafted by a very crafty hand.
Casual references dropped in an early scene will pay off later with devastating dramatic effect; the past haunts the present, and there's no escaping it. There are flashes of humor from the minor characters, but we know right at the beginning that Dad's hail-fellow-well-met attitude rings hollow. Maybe it's the way James Black, as Joe Keller, the successful businessman who made faulty airplane parts during the war and then beat a rap for selling them, sits at the outdoor table. Even when he tries to make small talk, there's something guarded about him, something a bit off, closed in. Joe's not as gregarious as he thinks. We can't be sure, but there's something foul in the air.
The sapling apple tree, felled during the night in that ferocious windstorm right at the top of the play, clues us that omens are about. Planted in memory of firstborn son Larry, missing in action for three years, the tree's a potent image, and its loss does not bode well. Putting up a brave but futile effort, mom Kate (Josie de Guzman) seems to have cracked with it. She refuses to believe her beloved son is dead and will not tolerate anyone saying otherwise. She expects his return any day now, even if she must wait forever. Why she is so adamant that Larry is alive will be disclosed at the most judicious time, when the drama is most fraught, but this revelation is only one of Miller's potent and polished weapons of stagecraft. Sons is juicy with them.
A few of his choices are less felicitous -- the melodramatic reveal of Larry's final letter is as hokey a piece of dramaturgy as it would have been on a Mississippi showboat -- but the clunky dramatics are camouflaged by the rushing personal drama we're so caught up in. Miller gets away with certain things because the play flies so high by this point. We accept anything. That's Miller's ace.
Under tyro director Theresa Rebeck (renowned prize-winning playwright of Mauritius, Bad Dates and Omnium Gatherum), the play generates enough steam to power downtown. There's a momentous flow to it, as if it can't be stopped. The pacing's almost musical, swirling to a crescendo, hitting a peak, then spinning forward again to a higher peak. The surge is built in by Miller, but Rebeck conducts like a maestro. And what a fine cast she gets to lead. The major players have never been better.
As Joe, Black tamps down his natural volcanism, simmering at low profile until the anguish about what he's done "for business" fatally rears up. De Guzman, tightly wound in her secret world, overlays Kate with a fine sheen of sympathy and even dignity as her illusions shatter. Jay Sullivan, as son Chris, who adores his father, can't bear the thought that his dad has betrayed anyone. When this most likable character has his heart broken, you can feel the pieces fall off him. During this wrenching scene, as he berates his father, there's not a sound from the audience. We're all holding our breath. As Ann, the former girlfriend of cherished Larry but now ready to marry Chris, Elizabeth Bunch is conflicted in her desire yet holds the knowledge of its destruction. She's dewy when in love, but she knows exactly what she wants and isn't about to let it go. As Ann's brother George, son of Joe's business partner now serving time in prison, Chris Hutchison seethes in vengeance mode until calmed by Kate's maternal concern. Prodded by Joe's intransigence, he doesn't stay calm for long. All of them handle Miller's distinctively theatrical dialogue with spontaneity and freshness, and the powerhouse scenes catch in our throats as psychic blows become knockouts.
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The nosy neighbors, trapped husbands and unfulfilled housewives are delightfully limned by Jeffrey Bean, Melissa Pritchett, Santry Rush, Chelsea Ryan McCurdy and Winch Eagleton.
Alexander Dodge's outdoor set drips with a realism not seen since the days of Belasco. You can almost smell the peeling paint on the Kellers' frame and clapboard house. I bet if you turned on the hose by the side of the house, real water would squirt out. This hi-def realism is a bit over-the-top for Miller's hothouse drama, but it's awfully lovely to look at. Judith Dolan's utilitarian period clothes are swanky, except for Ann's blood-red blotched sundress that makes it look as if she's arrived from a slaughterhouse. When she made her first appearance on the backporch, I though she had been stabbed. Philip Rosenberg's lighting is dappled and shadowy in the finest pastels; and Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen's sound design wafts by with Coplandesque echoes and atmospheric exterior effects such as barking dogs and other signs of suburban life.
Except for The Crucible, perhaps his most popular play, Miller would turn to a more internal, nonlinear style for his later work. (You can't go much further "in" than guilt--obsessed Quentin in After the Fall.) But in All My Sons, he slams the drama smack in our faces. It's wild and risky, a howl to the gods. You should hear them at the Alley. What music they make!
All My Sons Through April 19. Alley Theatre at Wortham Theatre, University of Houston. Entrance 16 off Cullen Boulevard. 713-220-5700, alleytheatre.org.