I love it when, looking over the set before the play begins one sees onstage a house with wood shingles, small town or rural, with a porch and a yard and the suggestion of a lived in interior.
Picnic, The Fifth of July, August: Osage County, All My Sons are some of them. It raises a pleasant nostalgia and eases loneliness – one’s going to meet the family! One does, and with it the dramatic tensions and hidden truths behind the appealing setting.
Set in August 1946, shortly after the end of World War II (and first produced in 1947), All My Sons takes place in and around the porch and yard of Joe Keller, a successful small town manufacturer, and his wife Kate. Their son Larry, a WWII pilot, is MIA and presumed to have died in action, though Kate vehemently refuses to believe he is dead.
Their other son, Chris, has now fallen in love with Ann Deever who’d been Larry’s girlfriend, and when she arrives at the house for a visit, Kate, certain that Larry’s still alive, finds their romance disloyal and unbearable. To make it worse, Ann’s also the daughter of Joe’s former partner, Steve Deever. Joe and Steve had been tried for shipping from their factory mis-manufacturered cracked aircraft cylinder heads for P-40 planes during the war but Joe was exonerated (he was said to be home with the flu the day the parts went out) while his partner, Deever, went to jail, where he still sits. To knowingly send out faulty engine parts is so horrible that neither Ann nor her brother George have so much as written their father since he went to jail.
Only, we learn, that George Deever, now a lawyer, has just paid his father a visit in jail. And that, and other hints, make the Keller’s – and us – realize that, amidst the refreshing grape juice and romance and Joe’s plans for a great dinner out that night, that matter of guilt with the cracked airplane parts simply will not disappear, in spite of the Kellers’ desperate attempt to bury it in the past.
Consider what’s at stake. Larry Keller was a pilot presumed to have died in a combat mission. If Joe had a part in letting the faulty aircraft parts out of the factory, he would, essentially, be responsible for his own son’s death – a thought beyond bearing. And as we begin to consider that possibility, we realize that Kate’s insistence that her son is still alive isn’t just a mother’s grief-driven craziness – for Larry to be alive is her husband’s only hope.
And as things turn out, it is a thought beyond bearing.
It’s not for nothing that Arthur Miller have Joe’s factory manufacturing parts for the P-40 because it was considered our best fighter plane available in large numbers – in other words, there was a rush on them and so, when some of the cylinder heads came through the manufacturing process with a small crack, Joe was frantic to fulfill his quotas and, as he says, not lose his contract, and so he sent out the faulty parts with an ineffective patch. For Miller, this decent man’s tragedy is a compound of personality, capitalism and war. They way the author gives full due to each of these elements is part of the greatness of the play.
The play is not perfect – there are a few implausibilities – but it’s powerful and compelling. This is the first time I’ve seen it and I think, among Miller’s most serious plays such as Death of a Salesman and The Crucible, this is my favorite.
In this superb production Joe, played by Alec Baldwin, comes across at first as easy-going in style but driven from within. He speaks with an intimate and fascinating fast-talking hucksterism to the mark for the confident businessman who’s determined – oh so determined – to make the sale, and he builds the part to great intensity. Laurie Metcalf gives a nothing-short-of-great performance as the anguished Kate with much to hide, jerkily holding to the norms of social interactions while electrified from head to toe with fear and the determination to control a ruinous situation.
Miller based All My Sons in part on a news story about an aeronautical manufacturing company in Ohio that conspired with army inspection officers to approve defective aircraft parts, but he altered the story greatly. He also drew inspiration from Henrik Ibsen, both for his understanding of “the well made play,” and, from The Wild Duck, for the relationship between the two business partners.
I think also the play gains force from Miller’s adherence to Aristotle’s rules of unities in his Poetics: All My Sons is indeed a single story that unfolds in one place in a period of a day — and with a relentless uncovering of hidden guilt worthy of Greek tragedy. These are among the influences that flowed into Miller’s brilliant and original drama, a play fired by his grief over the war, his compassion for human beings, and his sense of justice. All that and a young playwright’s desire to write a play that as he said would be well received, and it was!
All My Sons is a gripping evening of theater. The story is tragic and one leaves exhilarated.
All My Sons plays at Guild Hall in East Hampton, NY, through July 28, 2015. As I write, it’s near the end of its short run and the remaining performances are sold out.