A muddled casting controversy and the resignation of a prominent director no doubt diverted some early public and press attention from the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, but this Broadway production, opening tonight, can handle whatever comes its way. When all’s said and done, Jack O’Brien’s knock-you-from-behind staging is as powerful and sturdy as Miller’s post-war classic itself.
And in a shattering performance that adds yet another layer to her quietly remarkable career, Annette Bening finds grace notes in the role of the grieving Gold Star mother that brings the character to vivid, brutalized life.
Co-starring Tracy Letts (August: Osage County) and Benjamin Walker (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson), All My Sons is typically considered Miller’s stepping stone to, or perhaps heralding of, the masterpieces: 1949’s Death of a Salesman, 1953’s The Crucible and 1955’s A View From The Bridge. Place it where you will – as this revival reminds us, All My Sons is the very definition of the well-made play, a drama that doesn’t so much disguise its intentions or hide its twists as make them all but inevitable. We see everything coming but get run over just the same.
Set in 1947, the year it was first produced, All My Sons tells of the Kellers, an Ohio family of three, formerly four, to whom the second world war has been both generous and terribly greedy. The 60-ish Joe Keller owns a factory that prospered with every airplane part that went to our boys overseas, even the faulty ones: Before he won an appeal, Joe did time in prison for his factory’s knowing sale of cracked cylinder heads that sent 21 American pilots to their deaths.
That list doesn’t include Joe’s pilot son Larry – not because the MIA soldier is alive, but because Larry didn’t fly the type of plane that used the faulty part. It’s one of the moral loopholes that lets Joe, barely, live with himself, and that lets his wife Kate (Bening) live at all. Kate, who some days stays in her nightgown, exists in a constant state of barely functioning denial. She won’t let Joe or their second son Chris (Walker) utter anything close to a suggestion that Larry, missing for three years, is dead.
The war-wounded Chris, though, is ready to move on – and is taking the huge step necessary to do so: He’s invited Ann – his longtime secret love, former girl next door and Larry’s one time fiancée – back to Ohio, where he’ll propose.
Doing so, of course, is an acknowledgement of his brother’s death, and will either send his mother completely over the edge or rescue her from the brink.
But there’s another weight Ann carries: Her father is Joe’s former business partner, who took the fall for those bad engines and now rots in jail. Ann hasn’t spoken to him in years, convinced, as is Chris, that he deserves every bad thing coming to him.
And now its all reaching a boil. Ann’s brother George (Hampton Fluker) has, for the first time, visited dad in jail, and George is returning to the old neighborhood with a newfound conviction that Joe’s been lying all these years. The truth is coming.
Played out on Douglas W. Schmidt’s uncannily realistic, deeply 3-D leafy suburban backyard set – convincing to every last spot of green and swing of a creaky, slamming back door – Miller’s tragedy unfolds like its ancient Greek ancestors, with fate in the stars (just ask the crackpot astrologer next door) and sins passed from one generation to the other.
But Miller’s genius was in using the old formulas to capture a very unbrave new world, drawing the demarcation between the era’s disillusioned youth – they’d come to be known as the Greatest Generation, but then they just seemed broken – and the elders who had long ago sacrificed fancy ideals to the demands of the Depression. Miller recognized the passing of one to the other, and found something lasting and universal in the specifics.
Now, about that casting controversy. The production’s original director, Gregory Mosher, had wanted an African-American actress to play the role of Ann, and had cast a black actor – apparently Hampton Fluker, currently in the production – as Ann’s brother George. Mosher came to loggerheads with Rebecca Miller, who runs the estate of her father Arthur Miller. Miller told The New York Times that presenting an interracial romance (between Ann and Chris) would whitewash the racism of the late 1940s.
Mosher quit in protest, O’Brien came aboard and Francesca Carpanini, a white actress who appeared on Broadway in 2017’s The Little Foxes, was cast as Ann. (Carpanini is fine, by the way – not quite up to par with Bening or Letts, but fine).
The Ann character aside, the production is, as it turns out, nontraditional in its casting: George is played by a black actor, and the Kellers’ next door neighbors – a couple played by Michael Hayden and Chinasa Ogbuagu – seem to reflect exactly the interracial relationship Mosher intended for Ann and Chris.
Rebecca Miller’s argument, as I understand it, isn’t without foundation – we tinker with the racial imagery of our past at our peril. Aaron Sorkin’s To Kill A Mockingbird did it successfully, though not incautiously, with its revisited presentation of the African-American housekeeper Calpurnia. Now All My Sons has done it, too, at least next door.