Neil Patrick Harris, Laurie Metcalf, Amy Sloan, and Len Cariou
in All My Sons

(Photo ©  Michael Lamont)
Neil Patrick Harris, Laurie Metcalf, Amy Sloan, and Len Cariou
in All My Sons
(Photo © Michael Lamont)
The late, great Arthur Miller enjoyed his first Broadway success in 1947 with the compelling drama All My Sons. Nearly 60 years later, the play still holds up beautifully as both an incisive portrait of a nation attempting to heal after a devastating war and a timelessly resonant example of history's unfortunate tendency to repeat itself. Still, it needs top-notch acting to come fully alive, so it's happy news that director Randall Arney's tasteful and intelligent staging at the Geffen Playhouse is full of performers who contribute stellar ensemble work rather than crass gimmickry.

This play and others by Miller were strongly influenced by the classic plays of Henrik Ibsen, impeccably structured dramas with a touch of Greek tragedy and a strong social conscience. All My Sons charts the coming-apart of a seemingly idyllic, all-American family following the revelation of past sins. Miller looks hard at the ugliness of war profiteering, the myriad moral dilemmas that are inevitable byproducts of cataclysmic wars, and the responsibility each of us has to love and protect all of "our sons" -- i.e., the extended family of fellow inhabitants of our troubled planet.

The plot revolves around Joe Keller (Len Cariou), who lives with his family in an unspecified, archetypal American suburb. A retired manufacturer of airplane parts, Keller had found himself and his business associate, Herbert Deever, charged with knowingly distributing defective parts that caused the death of many servicemen during World War II. Keller walked away scott-free while his partner went to prison. But Keller's own son went missing in action. His other son, Chris (Neil Patrick Harris), now wants to marry Ann (Amy Sloan), Deever's daughter and the former fiancée of Chris's vanished sibling. The skeletons in Joe's closet are abruptly pulled out when Ann's embittered brother George (Chris Payne Gilbert) arrives to rip apart the Keller family's surface tranquility.

The finest in an array of resplendent performances here is given by Laurie Metcalf as Joe's wife, Kate, a woman determined to let sleeping does lie. In Kate, Miller crafted a multi-shaded character as memorable as Eugene O'Neill's Mary Tyrone or Tennessee Williams's Amanda Wingfield. Almost unrecognizable, Metcalf submerges herself into the role with an economy of movement, facial expressions, and gestures that speaks volumes about the emotionally wound-up matriarch who's trying to carry the family's suppressed strife on her shoulders. This is a textbook example of less-is-more acting, a heart-wrenching performance that anchors the production.

Cariou's portrayal of the likewise complex Joe is also full of nuance, although one might ask for a smidgen less good cheer and some stronger early portents that all is not well behind the man's façade. As the noble and likable Chris, Harris makes a convincing segue from a happy, optimistic fellow to a disillusioned and ultimately despairing young man. Gilbert's performance as George is forceful and empathetic. Sloan captures both the basic human decency and the conflicting emotions of Ann, who's torn between her love for Chris and the horrendous possibility that Joe betrayed her father.

Robin Riker provides comic relief as the outspoken, gossipy, manipulative neighbor Sue Bayless. Also turning in fine work are Morgan Rusler as Sue's physician husband and the three actors who play other neighbors: Liam Christopher O'Brien, Megan Austin Oberle, and Sterling Beaumon.

Per its usual sublime standards, the Geffen supports the cast's efforts with an outstanding production. From the opening effects suggesting a metaphorical storm brewing to the devastatingly sad fadeout, Daniel Ionazzi's lighting and Richard Woodbury's sound are gloriously effective. Robert Blackman's exquisitely detailed set -- an American Dream exterior of a family home belying the nightmare within -- is perfect, and David Mickelsen's marvelous period costumes are likewise artfully rendered. In every respect, this shattering production does full justice to Miller's ever-pertinent parable of sin and retribution.