Addison — Producing artistic director Terry Martin doesn’t step out of his official role at WaterTower Theatre for just any part; it’s been three years since local audiences saw him in the Dallas Theater Center’s production of Next Fall. But for the opportunity of playing Joe Keller, the tragic central character of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, Martin says he was willing and eager to step onstage again—even though he admits his “producer’s brain” was hard to turn off. “It kept asking me distracting questions, like ‘Will the set be ready on time? Is that color the right one?’” he laughs.
Martin played a lot of leading men in his earlier career, but clearly delights in taking on the gritty, deep character roles he always wanted.
“I’m always most excited about those plays and those roles that scare me a little bit,” Martin says. “When I pulled this play from the stack [of classics] I wanted to take another look at, I was blown away by what a powerful play it is—and Arthur Miller is an incredible playwright! Diana [Sheehan, who plays Joe’s wife Kate] said the other day that you don’t get an opportunity very often in your career to work on material this deep and full and beautifully written. Everything you need is right there. In some plays, even good ones, the script might be a little clunky in places, or there are things you need to negotiate. It doesn’t mean the play isn’t good, but something like this? It’s just perfect—and it’s a joy to jump on and go for the ride.”
Miller’s 1947 play is a post-war drama haunted by events from the war itself. One son was lost, and one came home—to a family fiercely maintaining hard-won illusions about who they are, and keeping dangerous secrets that could explode at any moment. Everything comes to a head in one emotion-packed day of judgment. Miller took the plot from a wartime story about defective airplane engines he’d read in the newspapers—and All My Sons was his first Broadway hit. Directed by a young Elia Kazan, it won Tony Awards for Best Author and Best Direction. Good thing, too, since Miller’s first Broadway outing had flopped big—and he was giving playwriting one last chance before, he wrote later, going off to “find some other line of work.” He was 30 years old when he began writing All My Sons.
“The play resonates so much in terms of where we are in society right now,” says Martin. “All the talk about the ‘war machine’ and our responsibility to the world as opposed to the protection of our own families—we’re in the middle of the longest war in American history; it’s all very painful and difficult, and hard to look at straight on. I think we all fall into that trap, of wanting to sidestep our own responsibility in this. And all of these [big issues} come wrapped in an intimate family story. It simply felt to me that this was a conversation we’d really like to have with our audience.”
Who is Joe Keller? He’s a hardworking businessman, a manufacturer, a father and husband. Martin has thought long and hard about the fictional Joe Keller’s background.
“Part of the homework I’ve done is to explore what kind of childhood Joe might have come from,” he says. “More than likely, he’s a first-generation American, the child of immigrants who came from a place they wanted to leave, in search of a dream of success for their children. Joe inherited a mindset that the survival and betterment of the family is more important than anything.
“An actor can never apologize for a character. Joe believes the decisions he made were the only ones possible; he’s justified every decision in his mind—and as an actor, I have to find ways to [validate] his belief in the rightness of what he’s done. Everything is about family, and Joe wants them all happy. He’s a jokester, and when there’s conflict, he either shuts it down or avoids it. The thing is, all of us have to make decisions—and it’s so frighteningly easy to forget that some of our choices have repercussions for people who aren’t in our intimate circle.”
Husband and Wife…
Diana Sheehan plays Kate Keller, Joe’s strong but emotionally burdened wife.
“Once I figured out that Kate was a survivor, that was really what I needed to know,” says Sheehan, last seen playing glam fashion diva Diana Vreeland in Full Gallop. “I sourced a lot of things from my Irish grandmother, who would have been about Kate’s age in 1947. She was similarly the daughter of immigrants, and there’s something very Catholic about Kate Keller. She’s faithful as a rock, as Arthur Miller writes. And in spite of any evidence to the contrary, she’s going to believe to the end. She is a woman of faith.”
Even though she’s faithful to a delusion? Sheehan laughs. “Well, denial is a wonderful survival mechanism—and that’s her M.O., isn’t it?”
This is the first time she and Martin have acted together, and Sheehan says it’s “like a really good tennis match. We know each other so well, and there’s so much trust there. And it’s a warm group; we’ve fallen into that family dynamic quickly. With two and one-half weeks of rehearsal, we’ve had to!”
Sheehan also sees the many ways All My Sons connects with our world today. It’s one of many American stories that focuses on chasing the American Dream, looking for “the life.”
“Joe and Kate’s dreams are modest ones,” says Sheehan. “Let’s have food in the icebox; let’s get married and have babies and raise a family,” she says. “But of course we see people just like them today, all around us, people who have no perception of the bigger picture, who think ‘What I do only affects me and my family, and that’s all I’m responsible for.’ But Arthur Miller is asking us to consider that we’re responsible for more than that.
“You can still find stories like this one—a car maker who doesn’t recall air bags that could kill people, because it would cost money. It’s the same thing, people paying attention to the bottom line instead of the humanity of the situation.”
Yet Sheehan has endless sympathy for Kate, Joe and the play’s other characters.
“The thing about this play is, it’s not black and white,” she notes. “It has so much gray area. You can look at characters and realize that [in part] you’re right, and you’re right—and I can see where you’re coming from too. In a way, Joe and Kate just can’t afford some of the high-falutin’ principles the kids have, you know? They’ve got to live. These two have known what it’s like to starve. As Kate, I’m hearing the younger generation make their big philosophical points, and really, she’s got no time for them!”
Sheehan loves the way Miller “goes to the heart of the human condition.” For audience coming out of World War II, seeing All My Sons “must have been devastating,” she adds. “But these are questions that still need to be asked.”
Wrestling With a Classic…
Director David Denson, whose edgy Year of the Rooster was one of the highlights of the Elevator Project’s first season in the Wyly’s studio space, says he also loves working on an American classic like All My Sons—a play “that already has its bonafides, and a history and life to it.”
“There’s something to be said for diving into new plays,” he tells us. “You’re Lewis and Clark, exploring new territory. But with a classic, you’ve got to wrestle as much with the history of the play as the play itself. There’s a reason this play is a classic. It grabs you in all the right ways, pushes all the buttons: it has the social element, a captivating story about fathers and sons and families; and it’s that mid-century style of drama that can be so capturing [for an audience] especially perhaps when you’re young. Working on a play like that, you exercise a different set of muscles, and you try to find a way to bring something of yourself to it. The thing I’ve been saying [to the cast] is that we’re not creating a museum piece—and that our goal is to bring our contemporary selves to this play—and that we apply our own judgment, our own reaction, our own response to the play.”
Denson says his own kids have a neighborhood in Flower Mound that isn’t much different from the Keller’s. “My kids run out the door, meet up with friends, fish for catfish in the creek, and roam around the neighborhood like a little bunch of hoodlums,” he laughs. “And when dinnertime comes, parents still wander outside and start screaming kids’ names.” That, he says, is why the people in the play are so real to us—because their lives and concerns are so much like ours.
“This world is not a time gone by,” says Denson. “It exists in places still, all around the country. And that’s why I think it resonates; it’s hard to find issues in the play that aren’t things we still grapple with. You could have written All My Sons after Vietnam, after the first Iraqi war, after Afghanistan.”
Denson sees All My Sons as a play that “lays the blueprint” for Death of a Salesman, which followed soon after.
“I think Miller in these early works is trying to find how you get to the truth—to personal truth, social truth, to justice,” Denson adds. “There’s all this racehorse drive to get to that nugget of real, honest, factual, bare floor truth.
“He’s wrestling with the thing we all wrestle with—with the war between what should be and what is. I go through that with my kids right now. As a young person you say: well, it shouldn’t be like that. As an older person you say: but it is like that—so how will you deal with it? And by the end of this play, almost every character has had that moment of ‘Wow, the world I thought I was living in, is NOT what I was actually living through, and the rules aren’t actually what I thought they were.’
"And what Miller’s doing is making an attempt to bring those two lines closer together, to ask what we might do to change what is, and make it [if not perfect] at least nearer to the way things should be.”
All My Sons, like the Greek tragedies it’s been compared to—Joe as the flawed protagonist, friends and neighbors as a too-knowing Greek chorus—plays out in a single fraught day. Denson says the ticking-clock compression of time “brings an urgency and immediacy to the play. It begins slow and easy, but by the finish it is racing toward the end of the day—and you see how a world can be built and crumble in just 24 hours. This play grabs you by the neck, and it doesn’t let go.”
Denson, however, does not believe the play is a journey into darkness.
“I see All My Sons as an incredibly optimistic play,” he says. “It’s a play about what we could be. It is a play about the promise of us as human beings, as a society and a nation—it’s a play filled with talk of the heights we could reach. And I always like that. Yes, it’s definitely a tragedy—but in its soul, it’s a play about our potential, and I think that’s an optimistic thing.”