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All My Sons

Simon McBurney's breathtakingly acted version of Arthur Miller's tragic play is a must-see event. logo
John Lithgow, Dianne Wiest, Patrick Wilson,
and Katie Holmes in All My Sons
(© Joan Marcus)
Breathtaking performances by John Lithgow, Dianne Wiest, Patrick Wilson, and, yes, Katie Holmes in the revival of Arthur Miller's profoundly moving 1947 play All My Sons instantly tag the production at the Gerald Schoenfeld as an absolute must-see. And, make no mistake, the players' achievements are inextricably tied to Simon McBurney's direction. Most insightfully, McBurney has insisted that to establish the play's close-knit family-and-friends ambience, the actors must constantly touch, embrace, caress, spar, and just plain indulge in additional highly effective laying-on-of-hands.

The superficial family camaraderie -- especially noticeable between dad Joe Keller (Lithgow) and son Chris (Wilson) - - is shaped by Miller to mask a family loss. During just-ended World War II, airplane parts manufacturer Joe was exonerated on a charge of supplying faulty equipment directly responsible for the deaths of 21 pilots. Not among the deceased, however, was Joe's other son Larry, still missing in action and believed alive by mom Kate (Wiest). Indeed, Kate has pinned her hopes on his return and subsequent marriage to longtime girlfriend Annie (Holmes), their former neighbor and daughter of Joe's now incarcerated business partner.

The relatively dormant situation is rudely awakened when Annie arrives back home after three years in New York City. As Annie expects, Chris -- who also served in the war and with whom she has been corresponding -- plans to propose marriage. But that prospect is tainted by the real fear that the alliance will unsettle ever-wishful Kate. Also adamantly against the engagement is Annie's lawyer-brother George (an appropriately volatile Christian Camargo), who believes that Joe sold their father down the river at the trial.

As the pain of uncovering the truth about what really happened during the war sets in, Lithgow progresses from affable neighbor to desperate businessman trying to justify his compromising behavior. Ranging around the stage like an unmoored telephone tower, Lithgow gives an appropriately towering performance. Wiest, from whom warmth always radiates, makes Kate's' maternal convictions both frightening and heartbreaking, while Wilson's portrayal of the thoroughly principled Chris skirts any hint of the almost-too-good-to-be-true figure Miller creates.

Alongside these proficient veterans, stage neophyte Holmes more than holds her own as a sweetly intelligent young woman who waxes acerbic when necessary. As various neighbors and associates, Becky Ann Baker, Michael D'Addario, Danielle Ferland, Jordan Gelber, and Damian Young supply the other theatrical jolts Miller's coruscating script demands.

For all its astonishing accomplishments, this version isn't perfect. Indeed, it may anger many Miller purists. McBurney has built his directing reputation on his work with his London-based company Complicite -- which is based on a multi-media approach that works wonders for pieces McBurney creates from scratch. For All My Sons, however, his multi-media application will often provoke patrons to wonder whether all the war-footage projections and the frequent sound effects and underscoring genuinely enhance the action or detract from it.

Moreover, McBurney's decision to actualize events only mentioned in the text -- like the storm that deracinates a tree planted in Larry's honor -- might suggest to some theatergoers that McBurney doesn't trust Miller's script. Instead, I believe it shows that McBurney is aware of Miller's devotion to Greek tragedy and wants to underscore the playwright's broader implicit panorama.

Ultimately, though, he needn't have bothered. The acting troupe doing prodigious justice to Miller's words vivifies this brilliant and devastating modern tragedy all by themselves.

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