Written in 1947, Arthur Miller's All My Sonstells the story of Joe Keller, a businessman who knowingly sold defective plane-engine cylinders to the Army during World War II, causing the death of 21 pilots. Although he was able to conceal his crime by placing all of the blame on his partner, Keller's deceptions come to light in the course of the play, and his life begins to unravel. This is early Miller, and some critics have found a rawness and a tendency toward melodrama in the work. But the same critics also note that the playwright's genius and passion shine through, and the piece remains powerful.
Although Bruce K. Sevy is directing, All My Sons, opening Thursday, September 29, in the Space Theatre, is the first play to be staged by the Denver Center Theatre Company under new artistic director Kent Thompson. It exemplifies Thompson's interest in issues of morality, guilt and accountability. Keller's crime is that he placed business interests and the needs of his family above his obligation to his community.
When we last saw actor Mike Hartman with the DCTC, he was striding the stage in a cowboy outfit, brandishing a pistol and uttering inanities as a cartoon George W. Bush in Dirty Story, John Patrick Shanley's bitterly comic allegory of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle. Now he's returning as Joe Keller. The play may be a period piece, Hartman says, but its theme is timely: "We have Enron, WorldCom, all these businesses that have come under scrutiny for unethical practices. It's amazing what these characters got away with."
As an actor, however, Hartman must find ways of inhabiting Keller and ferreting out his positive traits. "Joe is a very likable person," he says. "He's full of stories. The neighborhood has embraced him again. From Joe's point of view, he's got his reasons. A man is in business, and he's got a family, and you've got to make a buck..."
Hartman points out that Miller is one of a handful of American playwrights whose work has stood the test of time because it contains enduring truths. Miller, he says, was "one of the first to investigate the tragedy of the common man. I think Joe is a working-class guy who just got successful -- uneducated, feels more comfortable with the guys in the shop than with the executives."