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Family Values

Theater Review: All My Sons

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This election season we'll hear a lot about the American dream, unity, family an patriotism. On the political stage, a candidate seeks to embody these and other traditionally American values without contradiction. But on a theatrical stage, contradictions are what compel an audience. What if you had to choose between your family and your country? What if a man who manufactured airplane parts found out they were faulty -- and sold them to the military anyway? What if he did this to support his family? What if, as a result, 21 airplanes crashed, killing the pilots? Arthur Miller's All My Sons, currently being produced by the Stowe Theatre Guild, asks these questions.

Miller is best known for his iconic, Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Death of a Salesman. Another major work, The Crucible, was adapted for the screen and starred Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder. Set during the witch-hunts of 17th-century Salem, it may be the most exotic of Miller's works; Death of a Salesman and All My Sons both take place in post-World War II America. Typical of Miller's plays, all three deal with extreme tragedies in the lives of ordinary, working-class Americans. Miller's ear for vernacular and familiar-seeming characters grounds his stories for a modern audience; he writes tragedies about the family down the street.

In All My Sons, Joe and Kate Keller and their adult son Chris are that family. We meet them on their back porch in August 1947. Three years earlier, Chris' older brother Larry had been reported MIA off the coast of China. But, thanks to Joe's manufacturing plant, the family has prospered since the war.

When Chris invites Ann Deever home to propose to her, the family seems poised move on. But Ann was originally Larry's sweetheart, and Kate still believes Larry is alive. The first night Ann stays at the Kellers', a tree planted in Larry's memory is struck by lightning. Kate takes this as an omen.

Then there's the fact that Joe Keller and Ann's father Steve were once convicted of selling faulty cylinder heads to the military. Joe was acquitted on appeal, but Steve remains in jail. Idealistic and honest, Chris believes in his father's innocence, but Ann's brother George shows up to tell a different story. Soon, even the audience doesn't know who to believe.

Joe, played by Walt Levering with equal parts De Niro and Santa Claus, is patently likable. He plays with the neighborhood kids, handing out police badges from cereal boxes. But he lets them think he's been a detective rather than a convict. Levering grasps both sides of this character: the flawed human side as well as the affable, silver-haired patriarch.

Morgan Irons portrays the determined matriarch Kate, who is deathly afraid of what the transpiring events will mean to her family. Far from milking the melodrama, Irons finds plenty of opportunity for humor; she has mastered a wry delivery and a motherly frankness.

Mark Cranmer's Chris may be the most captivating of the bunch. When he proposes to Ann, for example, Cranmer isn't afraid to take his time, to have fun with the lines. After the couple's first kiss, a mere peck, he chants, "I kissed Ann!" and does a little dance around the stage. That playfulness is a winning quality on stage.

Elisabeth Ruby Hobbs is picture-perfect as Ann Deever; blond, slim and meticulously dressed, she could have stepped out of the pages of Vogue magazine. Despite her character's generally decorous demeanor, Hobbs introduces an eloquent physicality toward the end of the show, when she shies away from Larry's last letter to her.

As George Deever, Brent Campbell has a small but pivotal role. Despite his relatively brief stage time, Campbell hits a variety of notes, from uptight and suspicious to boyish and gracious.

An array of neighbors rounds out the cast. Dr. Jim Bayliss, aptly played by Robert Brody, admires Chris despite his personal skepticism. Lydia Lubey, played by Andrea Freeman, is radiant as the girl next door who got away; according to Kate, Lydia is the woman George should have married but didn't, because Lydia laughed too much for his taste. Callum Adams as Bert -- the representative neighborhood kid -- is not just charming; he shows impressive technical ability considering he's only 9 years old.

Set designer Milford Cush-man, an architect by day, has given these actors, and director Tom Carder, a lot to work with. The Kellers' back porch and yard have been rendered in full detail. You can even look in the windows to see the kitchen, complete with rotary phone and a 1947 calendar. The porch is realistically raised a few feet above the yard, giving the actors two levels to work on. That the porch is set on a slight diagonal, rather than parallel with the edge of the stage, creates the potential for dynamic stage pictures.

An arbor placed on the edge of the stage to the audience's left is a place for intimate conferences; poignantly, it's also where Chris finally confronts his father. To the right, that broken-down memorial tree hovers in the audience's peripheral vision and haunts the family throughout the play.

In a medium as visual as theater, it's important for actors to be conscious of their position on, and movement across, the stage. This production's only major fault is that actors often spend several minutes standing or sitting next to each other. This is visually static, and boring. It's more interesting when one person sits and another stands. Kate on the porch, standing over her son and husband, who sit on the lawn furniture -- especially when Kate is insisting that, despite all, they will not give Larry up for dead -- begins to get compelling.

Had Carder urged the cast to take full and imaginative advantage of the space, he would have upgraded this production from an impressive piece of community theater to an impressive piece of theater, period. However, the actors and director have obviously done their homework, and this show about the far-reaching consequences of war is timely.

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