It's Arthur Miller time in Denver; works by the American playwright have been staged by no less than three local theaters in the past month. And Industrial Arts' moving, if somewhat choppy, production of Miller's timeless All My Sons provides an interesting contrast to his more popular but less dynamic Death of a Salesman (now at the Buell in a Broadway road show starring Hal Holbrook as well as being recently departed from Littleton's Town Hall Arts Center).
The same theme runs through both plays: The past comes back to haunt those who deny it, sometimes with a fiery vengeance. But All My Sons survives better as tragedy because we recognize the all-too-human rationalization of past mistakes, pity the impulse to evade consequences and, at the same time, abhor the selfishness and greed behind the mistakes of an ordinary man.
The play opens on a suburban landscape just after World War II. Neighbors casually drop in on Joe Keller as he sits in the yard over his morning paper and coffee. The whole picture seems serene and conventional--Joe is obviously well-liked by his neighbors and adored by his son, Chris. But something is amiss in the quiet garden. Chris is in love, and the woman he loves is somehow unacceptable to his parents; her presence in the family home is reason enough for irritation. Anne, we learn, was engaged to Chris's brother Larry, who's been missing in action for three years and long presumed dead. But his mother, Kate, won't give up on him and refuses to hear that Chris loves Larry's girl.
Kate's obsessive need to hold on to Larry amounts to a kind of madness, and gradually we begin to find out what is at its core. Another mystery, too, unravels: why Anne has refused to speak to her own father. Anne's father and Joe, it turns out, were partners during the war. Their plant made cylinder heads for planes. But one day they shipped faulty heads and the 21 planes in which they were installed crashed, killing all 21 pilots. The partners were arrested, but Joe managed to get the whole thing pinned on his weaker link.
The story unwinds over a twelve-hour period, and Anne is the innocent catalyst that stimulates the upheaval. Because she has come to claim Chris, her brother George arrives to dissuade her from marrying into the Keller curse. Joe very nearly succeeds in charming George into trusting him. But the truth has a life of its own.
Mary Guzzy-Siegel plays a woman thirty years her senior with classy style and weight. Currents of willfulness, jealousy and blind belief sweep over her and tug her into alternate states of kindness and cruelty. Patrick McGlynn gives a mixed performance as Joe; he's at his best when he's most placid, but many of his flights of rage seem calculated. Brad Brown is superb as Chris. This actor who plays boyish eccentricity so well manages a noble mind and a kindly spirit with equal grace. Leslie Henson is one young actress to watch--she couples intelligence, innocence and passion with a Grace Kellylike poise.
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Despite some problems--at times the actors dash about the stage unmotivated by the dialogue and seem to rush each other in unfortunate ways--the emotional depth remains intact. Every character in this play suffers from self-deception, and every one of them thinks he or she "knows" the truth. The actors played this level of reality with so much force the night I saw the show that it made some audience members weep.
Chris's disillusionment is the hardest to take because disillusionment is so hard on all of us. But the self-deception Miller weaves here is worse. He is a master at reminding us of all the heartbreaking moments when we realize that not only have we been lied to, but that we have lied to ourselves. And it is that awakening that Industrial Arts milks for all it's worth. Joe made every kind of excuse: The economic system, the social pressure, the love for family made him ship those cylinder heads. But underneath his very human rationalizations lie simple greed and self-interest.
Miller is a moralist, and his morality plays are better or worse for the moral he happens to espouse in them. For my money, the moral of All My Sons is his most persuasive: Every individual is responsible for his own actions--and there is no socio-economic excuse for betraying one's fellow human beings.
All My Sons, an Industrial Arts production through April 21 at the Denver Civic Theatre, 721 Santa Fe Drive, 595-3800.