All My Sons @ Matrix Theatre

Joe Keller (Alex Morris) has owned and operated his metal factory for forty years. He nearly lost everything though when at the height of the war his company was accused of knowingly shipping damaged cylinder heads that resulted in the deaths of 21 army flyers. He and his partner Steve Deever are both arrested. Blame for their shipping falls on Deever alone. Joe is released while his former partner is tried and imprisoned. Joe and his wife Kate (Anne Gee Byrd) watched as their two sons go off to serve their country. Larry, their oldest, who was engaged to Deever’s daughter, becomes a fighter pilot in the Pacific theater. His younger brother Chris (A.K. Murtadha) sees combat in Europe.  It’s now August, 1946. The war has ended and Chris returned to work beside his father in the family business. Larry didn’t return. His plane vanished over the China Sea in 1943. Even after three years, Kate maintains an unwaveringly faith that he’s alive, collecting news clipping of other sons’ miraculous returns as proof that “God is good.”

The play opens the morning after a fierce thunderstorm had battered the area. There is a casualty of the storm’s fury in the Keller’s backyard, a fallen apple tree that had been planted in the missing brother’s memory. The Keller’s are excited by a houseguest, Ann Deever (Linda Park), daughter of Joe’s imprisoned partner. To escape the shame of their father’s crime, her family sold their home next door to the Keller’s and moved to New York City. Neither she nor her brother George (James Hiroyuki Liao) have had contact with him since.

Kate is overjoyed, finding in Ann’s surprise visit, who she still regards as “Larry’s girl,” and the falling of the tree, signs of her missing son’s imminent arrival. What Kate doesn’t know is she and Chris have been corresponding the past two years and that she’s there at his invitation where he plans to ask her to marry him.

A “midpoint” is defined as “a position midway between two extremes,” and that is where Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” begins, the midpoint for two families between the two extremes of the past and the future.

Miller’s first play failed, closing less than a week after opening. He resolved to try his hand at playwriting once more, vowing he’d give it up and “find some other line of work” if it didn’t meet with better success.

His mother-in-law had shown him an article about a daughter, who discovering her manufacturer father sold defective equipment to the US military during the war, had reported him to the government. This newspaper clipping was the basis for Miller’s second play “All My Sons.”

In it he embraces the classic Greek unities unfolding the drama on a single set over a single day. But these limitations don’t serve to restrict the sweep of his creativity. Most notably, Miller, drawing on the Old Testament, places in the Keller’s garden a fallen apple tree, struck down by a bolt of lightning, both echoing and foreshadowing the destruction and liberation that knowledge offers.

All My Sons” premiered in January of 1947 and ran for 328 performances. Miller stayed with playwriting. The work presents with unsullied clarity the prowess which the young playwright possessed as well as his promise, and can be seen as a “first draft” to Miller’s 1949 masterwork “Death of a Salesman”.

Cameron Watson’s splendid staging of “All My Sons” now playing at the Matrix Theatre could well serve as a textbook example for demonstrating what the essence of good direction is. He has presented the work in the best light of its strengths, he has added relevance but not imposed it, and has guided his cast over the treacherous terrain that a “classic” challenges a director with giving his audience not a museum piece, but theater that breathes.

The first and greatest hurdle to any director is casting. Any time I see a show that is well cast across the board I know it means one of two things. Either the director has a keen eye for talent and deep respect for those who endure eight weeks of labor pains to end in a delivery spread over six weeks with matinees on Sunday; or the director got damn lucky; with this cast I suspect both.

Morris, Byrd and Murtadha infuse their performances with those nuances of agony the intimacy of families engenders. As Joe, Morris skillfully conveys the common man’s uncommon potential for good and evil. Park’s Ann is a study in sincerity. We feel her love for the Keller family and her brother, and we feel her immense loneliness establishing the internal conflicts justifying the lateness of her third act revelation which serves as the play’s peripeteia. Television viewers will remember Park best as Hoshi Sato from Star Trek: Enterprise. (And that oughta put some Klingons in the audience.)

The play’s other characters function as voices of a chorus in division. Neighbor Frank (Arman Vasquez) like the Delphic Oracle, is trying to provide Kate with Larry’s horoscope as proof he couldn’t have died on the day he disappeared. Taylor Nichols portrays Doctor Bayliss with the honest humanity of one who wishes to heal all and suffers for his inability to. Anita Barone as his wife deftly shifts from sweet face nurse to money obsessed nag, personifying the Erinyes the paired furies sent by the Gods to torment “whomever has sworn a false oath.”

Deserving special notice is Liao, for a standout performance in a standout cast. The character of George Deever can be compared to that of Tiresias, the blind prophet tortured by the truth he knows and which when told is not believed. The role poises two difficulties: Its character’s arc counterpoints a pivotal shift in the dramatic narrative of the play, and the character’s stage time is brief. Faced by such a double whammy many actors falter. But Liao accomplishes this and more, bringing to the stage the stark suffering resulting from a sin not yet known. In this he is excellently aided by Maritxell Carrero as Lydia, once George’s sweetheart and now married to Frank. Their short moments on stage are mesmerizing and heartbreaking as each contends with what might have been once, and now is lost.

Going into the production I was troubled by the notion of its non-traditional casting – the Kellers are an interracial couple, the Deevers Asian. This is 1947 after all, Executive Order 9102 had been nullified for less than year, the armed services still remained segregated and I feared this would somehow jar my “suspension of disbelief.” Well I stand corrected. Producer Joseph Stern (“Stick Fly”, “Neighbors”, “The Birthday Party” and others – many others!) is far too gifted and experienced to arrive at such a decision offhandedly or merely for the sake of expedience. By his choice of an ethnically diverse cast, Stern has brought to the forefront of our receptiveness the play’s profound “universal truth” in the shadow of which the loss of a “historical reality” went all but unnoticed.

Part of Miller’s genius was his ability to see beyond the illusion of the contemporaneous. “History always repeats itself,” the saying goes, and the saying is dead wrong. It’s not history but man, who unwilling or unable to learn from his past mistakes, keeps repeating them over and over. It’s a question of perspective. Miller recognized this and so perceived in the events of his own day, whether in HUAC hearings or a businessman’s betrayal, the same tragic issue found in the drama of Sophocles and Euripides, the failure of human beings to be humane.

Near the close of “All My Sons” one character cries out in his own defense, “A man can’t be a Jesus in this world.” In this statement you hear the first note of a reframe which will reoccur throughout Miller’s body of work: that one cannot be his own redeemer cleansing away the sin by self-forgiveness. A man is what his choices make him, and it is by our decisions “in this world” that we decide our own damnation or salvation. Considering these troubled times we are in, perhaps we need to be reminded of that.

All My Sons

The Matrix Theatre
7657 Melrose Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90046

Performances: October 22 – December 18
Thursdays @ 8 pm: Oct. 13, 20 (previews), 27; Nov. 3, 10, 17; Dec. 1, 8, 15 (dark Nov. 24)
Fridays @ 8 pm: Oct. 14, 21 (previews), 28; Nov. 4, 11, 18, 25; Dec. 2, 9, 16
Saturdays @ 8 pm: Oct. 15 (preview), 22 (Opening), 29; Nov. 5, 12, 19, 26; Dec. 3, 10, 17
Sundays @ 2 pm: Oct. 16 (preview), 23, 30; Nov. 6, 13, 20, 27; Dec. 4, 11, 18