Addison — Arthur Miller once wrote in an essay about his first successful play All My Sons that “the debatable question is never whether a play ought to teach but whether it is art, and in this connection the basic criterion…is the passion with which the teaching is made.”
There’s no question that this play is art and its passion for teaching evident. All of that comes through in WaterTower Theatre’s revival, directed with a delicate touch by David Denson. The production closes this weekend, and although I saw it on opening night two weeks ago and have seen several other plays and musicals since, it’s the production I can’t get out of my head.
A big part of that is Miller’s dexterity with “poetic drama,” as he referred to the work of one of his biggest influences, Henrik Ibsen (All My Sons was, in part, inspired by The Wild Duck). Another reason is that, in the midst of a solid ensemble of actors who have obviously done their character work, even in the smaller roles, there’s Terry Martin. He’s WTT’s artistic director, and although he is mostly a director these days, he shows his Meisner students that the instructor can indeed practice what he teaches.
Good actors who become good directors and teachers become even better actors.
Miller loved father/son relationships, as in his earlier play The Man Who Had All the Luck and later with The Price and his landmark Death of a Salesman. Key to a successful All My Sons is how the father, Joe Keller (Martin) interacts with son Chris (Christopher Cassarino), and reacts to mentions of the other son Larry, who disappeared in World War II because of faulty airplane parts that Joe and his former business partner manufactured. Martin handles both tasks perfectly.
Cassarino, in a nuanced performance, reacts in kind—Chris is one of several characters in the play who knows Joe is at fault but wants to keep some normalcy and leave the past in the rearview mirror. He also has another reason, in that he’s in love with Ann (Tabitha Ray, another beautiful performance in a character torn between the past and present reality), the former girlfriend of his presumed dead brother.
As Kate, Diana Sheehan gives the most surprising performance here. It’s not that Sheehan isn’t always marvelous (she is), but I haven’t seen a Kate with quite a dramatic flair—but it makes sense with Miller’s character description as a “woman of uncontrolled inspirations and an overwhelming capacity for love.” While Martin and Cassarino are marvelously subtle, Sheenan is the actor you can’t look away from because she commands every bit of the stage. Where Martin handles his denial through complacency, hers sneaks up to delusional without going over that line.
Joey Folsom makes a wonderful, fiery foil for Martin and Cassarino as Ann’s brother, George, who still harbors resentment (Ann and George’s father was Joe’s business partner, and was indicted) and brings in a necessary dynamic. In the sign of a taut production, Chris Hury, Jessica Cavanagh, Thomas Ward and Katlin Moon-Jones all shine in satellite roles as neighbors with various opinions, expressed verbally or not, about the sins of Joe Keller.
This is all served well in the WaterTower space, where set designer Clare Floyd DeVries has configured the stage in tennis court/runway style, with the audience on two sides. The Keller’s property from the back porch to the back of the yard offers breathing room. DeVries handles Miller’s stage directions exquisitely, including the slender apple tree and representation of surrounding poplar trees—it’s important that the playing space evoke something that could be a secluded respite from the ghosts of the past. There’s also fine work from costumer Christina Cook, who tackles the era, geography and characters nicely.
The phrase “exploring the human condition” gets bandied about a lot in reference to theater, and one could argue that most works of drama, by their very nature, do that. Miller worked in the complexities of that condition more poetically than most, and when you see a revival as thoughtfully staged as this one, it reminds that a true classic has the ability to haunt—and teach—long after viewing.
» Read our feature on this production, with interviews with Denson, Martin and Sheehan