by Geoff Hoff~
I realize that, over the few years I have been a theatre critic, I have become a bit jaded. I suspect it may be one of the inevitable consequences of the pursuit. I want every play I see to be brilliant, and enough aren’t that I no longer expect it, which is sad. I have seen Arthur Miller’s All My Sons many times. I have read it more. I directed a production of it several years ago. I did not think I could be moved again by this play. Because of that, I almost assigned one of my other writers to review it. Besides knowing I denied that writer this experience, I am very glad I decided to put my jaded self into my car and drive to the damned theatre.
Trust me, there is plenty wrong with this production, I’ll get to that in a moment. I’m a critic, it’s my job. But despite all that, the power of Mr. Miller’s play shines through like a blinding light and that is ultimately all that matters. A lot, but not all, of the credit for the communication of that power goes to Dominic Competatore, who plays Chris Keller. Yes, he’s a bit too Italian to be playing someone named Keller, but his performance is so fully realized that trivial matters like that don’t matter.
Mr. Comperatore is not really a leading man type. He’s not the beautiful but brooding young man who is often cast in this role. He plays it simply as a simple, honest man. He really is the guy next door, the one you trust and go to for advice. He so embodies the life of Chris Keller that we truly believe he watched the men under his command die, one by one, during the war and that he feels each death in every cell in his body. We truly believe him when he tells his father he’s not fast with women. We truly believe, when he kisses Ann for the first time, that it is the very first time he has kissed anyone where it meant anything to him, and we believe just how much it does mean to him. It was, simply, a performance of understated brilliance.
For those who don’t know the play, All My Sons is about fathers and sons, about greed, about capitalism, about family, and, as are all of Arthur Miller’s plays, about the ultimate meaning and experience of truth and what happens when we don’t live by it. It is 1947 and Joe Keller is a small town industrialist. His ex-business partner is in the penitentiary for shipping defective airplane parts that killed 27 World War II pilots three years earlier. It is a crime that Keller was also accused but later acquitted of. Keller’s two sons went to war. Only one of them came back. When that son, Chris, invites the other’s old sweetheart, daughter of the ex-partner, back to town in order to ask her to marry him, his mother, Kate, who still believes the other son is coming home, won’t — can’t — accept the fact that Ann has moved on. All the old pain from the trial is brought back to the surface.
Okay, now to the nitty-gritty. I told you I had a problem or two, so let me get all that out of the way. The set, by Roberta Christensen, is clumsy, which is odd, because her set for another show I saw at the Ruskin, Jesse Boy, was brilliant. The entire back wall here is covered by a plank fence made with such obviously new wood that it’s jarring. Come on, how hard would it have been to distress it a little? This is a fence that has been here for years surrounding a house whose family has occupied it for years. There is a trellis on one end of that fence. Kate stands in front of that and says that all the roses are gone because of a storm. The trellis is covered in ivy, not rose bushes. Clumsy.
The upstairs bedroom window, which becomes almost a character in the second act when we know Ann is somewhere behind it, was off to the side, almost an afterthought. Once the light in that window is lit, we should never not be aware that it is there, a constant reminder of the dead son and the current trouble, but with this set, we only notice it when someone directly points it out. Oh, yeah. There’s a room up there. Now what were you saying?
The lighting, also by Ms. Christensen, is also pedestrian. Besides a lightning effect that starts the play, it is basically lights up and lights down. The second act is supposed to be in the evening, but we never know that until one of the characters mentions that it’s getting dark. Again, simply clumsy and puzzling.
Enough of that. The costumes, by Matthew Peridis, were quite good. These are simple, small town people, and, except for an odd straw hat worn by a young neighbor boy (played on the night I saw it by Tucker Reilly), each and every piece of clothing perfectly captured the time, the place and the person. You can not ask more of costumes.
Mr. Comperatore is not the only good actor in All My Sons. Jonathan Levit gives an intelligent, simple performance as Jim Bayliss, the jaded doctor who lives next door and who understands and wants to protect Chris’s idealism. He mixes just the right amount of compassion and cynicism and we feel we know this doctor who gave up so much for his family. Austin Highsmith is both lovely and heartfelt as Ann, who just wants to move on with her life. She glows in her lighter moments and brings a subtle maturity to the woman who has spent too many years alone.
Maury Sterling is marvelously intense as Ann’s brother George. Not intense as in an actor who wants to impress an audience, but intense as in a person who has just had his world turned upside down and who doesn’t quite have the fortitude or mental abilities to cope with it. He is real and we feel his pain and confusion. (The one issue I would have, probably very unfair, is that so many of the other characters tell George that he’s wasting away but Mr. Sterling, though attractively so, has a few extra pounds around his middle.)
There are two people who play Frank, one of Chris’s old class mates who has grown up to be a haberdasher with several children. Chad Wood played it the night I saw it and was delightful as a man smitten by the beautiful Ann, charming in his study of astrology and long suffering but loving in his relationship to his wife.
Shae Kennedy plays Dr. Bayliss’ wife Sue, who is manipulative but who we understand and even sympathize with. Katherine Telford started out a little tentatively as Chris’s mother Kate, but by the end, her grim, dogged determination to protect her family against all odds and all comers created a visceral response in the audience. Paul Linke plays Joe, Chris’s father and is good, but tends at times to indicate his emotions and communications rather than live within the environment with a desire to control it.
Katie Parker, Tucker Reilly, Josh Drennen and Chuck Bradley fill out the cast with Alexis Boozer, Chuck Bradley, Sara Eve-Lydia, Francesca D’Annunzio-Bert, Sofia D’Annunzio-Bert, Julia McIlvane, and Dane Zinter as understudies.
All My Sons was directed by Edward Edwards with a sure hand. He shepherds his actors into the time and the place and guides and allows them to become what they must be to fully tell this moving story.
All My Sons is performed Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm and Sundays at 2:00 pm through October 2nd, 2010.
The Ruskin Group Theatre is located at 3000 Airport Avenue, Santa Monica, CA 90405, just off South Bundy Dr., adjacent to the Santa Monica Airport.
Ticket prices: $25.00 general admission, $20.00 for students, seniors and guild members.
Reservations online at www.ruskingrouptheatre.com or by phone at (310) 397-3244.