All My Sons

PlayMaker’s Rep
Through Feb. 14

Though it was written just over 60 years ago, there’s almost a feeling of cultural anthropology to Arthur Miller’s drama All My Sons: an eerie sense that’s hard to shake that we’re somehow looking in on premises, practices and beliefs that, with a pointed exception here and there, have largely passed from the scene.

Clearly, this World War II-era play couldn’t have been written about our own age. With the advent of the volunteer army to provide purpose, meaningand, above all, jobsto the country’s apparently more expendable lower classes, soldiering is now something we’ve grown comfortable with socially subcontracting out. What present-day factory owner would send either of his sonsmuch less both of themoff to a modern-day war?

And does he really still live, as he does in designer Mimi Lien’s set, in an apparently modest house on a neighborhood city street and not some McMansion in the suburbs or perhaps a bit further out? In such an exclusive, if not gated communityfeaturing larger, strategically buffered plots requisite to “estate homes”is his improbably small backyard really still the alternate neighborhood thoroughfare, through which a parade of next-door neighbors pass on a sunny Sunday morning just to share the morning paper and chat about the latest local news? Does a wife as archetypal as our subject still serve grape juicewhat else but Welch’s, reconstituted from a soggy, half-frozen paper “can”to visitors from a pitcher filled with ice? Does such a man ever take personal responsibility if his factory has produced defective wartime matériel? For that matter, in an era of corporations, banks and financial holding companies, how many individual factory owners still exist at all?

Designer Lien’s backdrop, in which three fractured parts of a yellow two-story house jut out from a fuzzy, faded blue and red-tinged billboard shot of 1940s urban domesticity, isn’t the last clue that we’re in the carefully manufactured simulation of an absent past. At least one of the characters in Miller’s drama already has a sense that an order in living or a meaning to actions has already vanished by the time of the play. What will take their place is not yet clear.

Chris (Christian Conn) is the son of factory owner Joe Keller (Paul O’Brien), who made it back from the war. His idealism inspires his neighborsindeed, at times a bit too much for their significant others to bear: “Chris makes people want to be better than it’s possible for them to be,” sour neighbor Sue Bayliss (Julie Fishell) complains at one point.

And yet there’s an undeniable edge to Chris’ optimism. More than three years have passed since his brother, Larry, disappeared during a wartime military flight. Yet Larry’s shadow still hangs over his parents’ home. We see it in a bedroom left just so, with a closet full of clothes kept pressed and shoes kept shined. We also see it in his family’s now fraying agreement to deny that Larry’s dead. Inevitably, the limbo of the older brother’s status creates a limbo in the house that threatens Chris’ own future prospects. After three years of living in pause, something’s got to give.

Moreover, after inviting Larry’s girlfriend, Ann (Marianne Miller), from New York, Chris confides to her that as he watched his company of troops being decimated in a disastrous battle, “Everything was being destroyed … but it seemed to me that one new thing was made. A kind of … responsibility. Man for man.” But on returning from the war, Chris tells Ann he found “there was no meaning in it here; the whole thing to them was a kind of abus accident … [N]obody was changed at all. It seemed to make suckers out of a lot of guys.”

In Christian Conn’s and director Davis McCallum’s interpretation, Chris’ faith, which others have used to orient their own lives, has already been shaken to its core. It is tested further through the three acts of Miller’s play.

This strong PlayMakers production features memorable performances from each of the central characters. Conn’s Chris, a spiritually wounded warrior who now fights for his own life shares the stage with a hearty Paul O’Brien as the patriarch, Joe. The nuclear family is filled out by Ellen McLaughlin, whose interpretation of mother Kate has more than a note of Patricia Neal in the mix. McLaughlin conveys the emotional resiliencyand the brittlenessof a matriarch not yet ready to give up her firstborn. Yet McLaughlin so effectively warms the stage in an Act 2 scene in which she fully bridges the distance between Ann’s brother, George (John Brummer), and a family from which he’s grown estranged. That scene, by itself, is one of the stronger ones we’ve witnessed in recent history at PlayMakers.

When Marianne Miller’s Ann emerges in Act 1, fresh air enters the room with her. Miller’s depiction is strong, positive, clearly grounded in a painful past but growing from it. Excellent, too, are company stalwarts Jeffrey Blair Cornell and Julie Fishell as a conflicted couple next door.

At its center, All My Sons asks what do you believe inand how do you go on believingwhen the world changes, and the ones who gave you those beliefs have let you down? In a year where, at least according to some, change we can believe in is in short supply, such questions are timely, in a production that is strongly recommended.