Although the critical world seems almost united in proclaiming Death of a Salesman not only Arthur Miller's best play, but one of the greatest twentieth-century dramas, I have always rather disliked it: the heavy symbolism, the self-consciously poetic language, the endless moralizing and the protagonist's awful self-pity. To me, the only reasonable response to that portentous and endlessly repeated line "Attention must be paid" has always been: Why?
So when I found All My Sons -- which I had somehow missed seeing or reading in many years of theater-going -- described by critics as an earlier, less accomplished and more melodramatic work, my heart sank. I was happily surprised, however, by director Bruce K. Sevy's strong, clean production at the Denver Center. Perhaps I'm wrong. Perhaps I should engage in a closer study of Miller's work, but All My Sons strikes me as by far the more interesting and less dated of the two plays. There are obvious similarities, of course. Both examine social and political influences -- particularly economic influences -- on a typical American family; both protagonists are corrupted patriarchs. In Salesman, society's relentless focus on profits and bland indifference to the welfare of its citizens destroy a salesman who has blindly believed the American dream. Joe Keller in All My Sons has sacrificed everything, including his ethics, to build up his business and support his family. He ran a factory during the war when productivity was key, and he allowed a shipment of defective parts to be sent out; the result was the death of 21 young American pilots. Keller was able to shift blame for the crime onto his former partner, Steve Deever. Deever is serving time as the play opens, while Keller -- despite the fact that his eldest son, Larry, was killed in the war -- seems to be living a good, all-American small-town life. He is popular with his neighbors and gets on well with his surviving son, Chris. He joshes with the kid next door, pretending to be the local sheriff and to house a jail in his basement. The symbolism, given Keller's own hidden crime, might seem obvious, but the psychological impulse behind it -- to impose order, to set things right -- is believable.
Keller's wife, Kate, has never accepted her son's death. When Chris makes it known that he intends to marry Ann Deever, Steve's daughter and Larry's one-time fiancée, she employs every trick of tongue and piece of manipulation she can muster to separate the young couple and -- as she sees it -- keep her family intact.
Death of a Salesman and All My Sons both consider large ethical questions and the significance of personal versus public life. Both contain tempestuous father-son battles -- not for simple power, but over worldview and morality. It's impossible not to view the soul-stripping fight between Joe and Chris as a precursor to the famous confrontation between Willy and Biff Loman in Salesman. But there's simply more at stake in All My Sons than the family and psyche of a worn-out and capitalism-corrupted salesman. The issues are more wide-reaching and more cogent, and they seem more relevant now. War profiteering is an age-old practice, but the current administration and its business cronies have taken it to such brazen heights that they make protest and even sober analysis seem almost quaint. Joe Keller's comment on the possibility of punishment -- "Half the goddamn country's got to go if I go" -- has never seemed more telling.
The play has some creaking plot devices, such as the fact that Steve Deever's children have not spoken to him since his conviction and the opportune appearance of a letter that precipitates the climax. There are melodramatic sequences, repetitions, lines that ring less than true, but there are also moments of humor, eccentricity and surprise, and the play rivets throughout. Joe and Kate Keller are fascinating characters, and Mike Hartman and Jeanne Paulsen act them so well that, watching, I hardly knew how to separate performances from script. Hartman is charming, bluff and easygoing, hitching up his pants and teasing his family and neighbors until the moment he begins to crumble from within. Paulsen has a richly ambiguous character to play, and one far more nuanced than poor, clinging Linda Loman. Kate is both self-denying and self-righteous. We empathize with her genuine grief for Larry. "In the dark," she says of all the war's bereaved mothers, "they're still waiting for their sons." It's a line that resonates now. And yet we're also stunned by her malice and calculation, the lengths to which she'll go to protect her husband. When Deever's angry son, George, arrives to accuse Joe, and Kate soothes him with an offer of homemade grape juice, we understand the seductiveness of the ordered family life she offers -- food and drink, sunny suburban days. Paulsen makes this woman human and emotionally complex.
A muted but recognizable thread in the tapestry of the play is the 1940s view of womanhood, expressed with such rage in Philip Wylie's influential Generation of Vipers. According to Wylie, American women were emasculators, killers of independence and creativity in husbands and sons, normalizers and equivocators who kept a corrupt society intact. This is the thread we sense vibrating when smooth-talking, husband-smothering neighbor Sue Bayliss reveals that she has always known Joe was guilty, but that she was willing to ignore it for the sake of normalcy. She wants Chris Keller to move away from the neighborhood because he "makes people want to be better than they should be or can be." (The role is well played by Leslie O'Carroll.) Kate's viperism is more subtle than her neighbor's, but it's unquestionably there.
Rachel Fowler's Ann seems generically perky at first, but then reveals a stronger, more interesting side as the play progresses. David Furr is solid and understated as Chris. He's particularly effective in the scene in which he proposes to Ann, standing several feet away, his tension and excitement evident only in his hands. David Ivers brings a lot of heart and energy to the difficult role of George Deever.
This is an first-rate and thought-provoking drama, executed with integrity. It's also an auspicious beginning to Kent Thompson's tenure as the Denver Center Theatre Company's artistic director.
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