Annette Bening and Tracy Letts Take On Arthur Miller's All My Sons
Jack O'Brien directs Roundabout Theatre Company's new revival of the 1947 classic.
"Don't civilize me!" yells a heated George Deever to Chris Keller in the second act of All My Sons as he's about to lay down harsh truths about Chris's father. It's not an especially significant line in context, but when Hampton Fluker, a black actor, delivers it in Roundabout Theatre Company's new production of the 1947 Arthur Miller classic, the words, sounding racially tone-deaf, suggest the limits of color-conscious casting, especially when it's approached half-heartedly. If only there was anything else in this otherwise workmanlike production worth talking about.
Miller's first major success, All My Sons centers on two families, the Kellers and the Deevers, brought together both by interfamilial romance and wartime guilt. Kate Keller (Annette Bening) still clings to the hope that her son Larry is alive after having disappeared in World War II three years ago. Meanwhile, Steve Deever remains in prison for his role in shipping faulty aircraft parts, a move that led to the death of 21 pilots; Joe Keller (Tracy Letts), who was complicit in the deal, avoided jail time and has made a stable life for himself and his family, convincing everyone — especially the other Keller son, Chris (Benjamin Walker) — that Steve was entirely to blame. Chris and Ann (Francesca Carpanini), Steve's daughter and Larry's former sweetheart, bridge the two families, with Chris about to ask Ann for her hand in marriage and break the news to a sure-to-be-disapproving Kate. But when George Deever (Fluker) arrives, he explodes all the characters' carefully cultivated illusions about guilt and innocence.
George isn't the only character cast with a black performer: Chinasa Ogbuagu plays Sue Bayliss, a next-door neighbor of the Kellers who functions as a voice of no-nonsense middle-class practicality in opposition to Chris Keller's privileged idealism. If one is willing to overlook the incongruity of making George Deever black but keeping Ann white, there's something empowering in Ogbuagu and Fluker playing the grim truth tellers amid a sea of white characters who are all suffering from varying degrees of self-delusion.
Beyond that mildly provocative bit of casting, however, this production of All My Sons is a straightforward presentation of Miller's play about buried family secrets and post-World War II moral confusion, with a high-prestige gloss. Given how emotionally wrenching the play still is, one could argue that the production's traditional approach is a strength, allowing the text to speak for itself without straining for topical relevance. Nevertheless, the question of why this play needed to be revived in 2019, beyond giving some name actors a chance to flex their muscles, is never really answered. Surely O'Brien could have addressed the ways Ann is uncomfortably objectified by many of the male characters in the play, as when much-older Joe tells her she has "nice legs."
Still, if seeing a powerful drama staged and performed well is enough of a reward, then this new production mostly satisfies. It's certainly beautiful to look at and listen to, especially with Douglas W. Schmidt's dazzling set, a colorfully elaborate representation of pastoral middle-class Americana, and John Gromada's sound design, vividly immersing us in this all-American environment with realistically detailed soundscapes of chirping birds, buzzing cicadas, and the occasional plane whizzing past.
With the exception of a mannered Annette Bening, whose performance is strained by her effort to underplay Kate Keller's mania regarding her son, the acting is terrific all-around. Tracy Letts adopts a growl in his voice that subtly implies the mulishness underneath Joe Keller's seemingly anodyne exterior, making the moments when he does explode inevitable yet still chilling. His climactic second-act confrontation with Walker, whose wide-eyed naïveté as surviving son Chris provides a perfect foil for Letts, is truly electrifying to watch.
Roundabout has delivered a solid new production of a play that has lost none of its power to provoke, 72 years after its original Broadway debut. But in a season that has seen revivals of classic musicals like Oklahoma! and Kiss Me, Kate, which have updated or taken daring risks with time-honored material, this All My Sons can't help but seem uninspired by comparison.