Adrian Chamberlain's Stage Left: Arthur Miller's All My Sons worth a look

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All My Sons was Arthur Miller’s first commercial success, debuting on Broadway in 1947, two years before Death of a Salesman. With this drama, which has just opened at the Roxy Theatre, we recognize themes again explored in Salesman: the hollowness of the American Dream, the dangerous over-idealization of family, the futility of living with lies.

Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre’s revival of All My Sons is a worthwhile effort. Directed capably by Brian Richmond, the show is anchored by a solid cast and Graham McMonagle’s stylish set. This production is definitely worth a look, particularly if you’re a fan of Miller’s work.

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While the show works, I’m not sure Thursday’s opening night performance fully caught fire as the playwright intended. Still, crucial climatic scenes were well delivered, particularly those with J. Lindsay Robinson and Blue Bridge newcomer Jan Wood.

All My Sons is a very fine drama, and a product of its time. Some will find Miller’s well-intentioned socialist zeal a touch single-minded and perhaps didactic. At the same time, it’s a powerful, well-crafted script that resonates 71 years on.

Joe Keller (Brian Linds) is an affluent manufacturer haunted by a dark past. During the Second World War, his company produced faulty engine parts for planes, resulting in the deaths of 21 pilots. Keller was not only responsible for shipping the defective materials, he betrayed his friend at the plant, Steve, by shifting blame to him.

Thickening the plot is the mysterious three-year disappearance of Joe’s son, Larry. His mother, Kate (played by Wood), who’s slightly unhinged by this circumstance, refuses to believe he’s dead. Meanwhile, their other son Chris (played by Robinson) is keen on marrying Larry’s old girlfriend Ann (Laura-Jane Tresidder). This displeases Kate, who believes that as long as Ann holds a flame for Larry, her son might still be alive.

To draw us in, Miller initially presents the Kellers as a wholesome Norman Rockwell-style family — happy, affluent, well- liked by neighbours. Yet we soon see all is not well in Keller-land — the fissures are apparent. Greek tragedy is an obvious influence here; the fatal errors Joe Keller made earlier in life reap devastating results.

Joe opted for personal wealth and misplaced loyalty to his family, even it meant betraying responsibility to society as a whole. In portraying this, as with Death of a Salesman, the fiercely uncompromising Miller pulls no punches. “Don’t you live in the world?” cries Joe’s son Chris upon fully realizing his father’s corruption. The playwright suggests Joe made a devil’s bargain symptomatic of a moral sickness throughout American society.

The actors display a thorough understanding of the play and their characters. Linds made Joe Keller likeable and warm, yet also managed to find the man’s bull-headed stubbornness. Wood brought out Kate’s curious mix of maternalism, self-deception and, underneath it all, a steely instinct for survival.

Chris is an equally complex character, something Robinson, a tall, physically imposing actor, was able to convey. Both Robinson and Wood convinced in the play’s climatic scenes, as did Victor Dolhai as George, Ann’s aggrieved brother who discovers Joe Keller’s treachery. (A smaller role, playing George is a somewhat thankless task. He is a two-dimensional character who seems, in the tradition of George Bernard Shaw, more like a stock device in a problem play than a real person.)

Much depends on the set of the Kellers’ 1920s-era home, a backyard scene in which all scenes are played. McMonagle, influenced by the paintings of Grant Wood (American Gothic), has done a fine job. The house has a lovely dappled patina; the hedges on each side of the stage loom menacingly, as if the Kellers’ past has finally caught up to them.

Next week Langham Court Theatre opens the evergreen comedy A Chorus of Disapproval by British playwright Alan Ayckbourn. The 1984 play is about a shy widower who joins a local operatic society and finds himself cast in a lead role. The show runs from June 6 to 23.

Theatre-lovers may also want to take note of Intrepid Theatre’s OUTstages festival, running June 19 to 24. This “decidedly queer festival” features drag, theatre, music, storytelling and even an old-time tent-revival event.

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