Arthur Miller sure can do moral fury. If you can make it all the way to the third act of Roundabout’s current revival of the 1947 postwar drama All My Sons — starring Tracy Letts as the complicitous patriarch of the Keller family and Annette Bening as his distraught spouse — then you’ll witness a cathartic burst of the kind of righteous, tragic rage that makes Miller an American heir to Ibsen and the Greeks. The question is, can you hold out that long? The stormy climax of All My Sons still packs a wallop, but the road to it is long, painfully dated, and — though we don’t like to admit to basic failings in our canonized playwrights — marked by some truly frustrating logical potholes. And in director Jack O’Brien’s production, the play’s glaring issues go unexamined, swathed in a suburban summertime scenic design by Douglas W. Schmidt that’s so artificially verdant it feels cloying. Of course, the point of the play is that unpleasant things are going to go down in this Norman Rockwell–esque backyard, but there are also unpleasant things going on in the fabric of Miller’s play, and these are being summarily avoided — even added to — as the production reverentially, almost complacently, presents All My Sons as an unquestioned masterpiece.
The play tells the story of two families, the Kellers and the Deevers, bound together by both love and betrayal. Joe Keller (Letts) is a businessman with a successful factory that produced airplane parts during the recently ended war. He lives in a lovely house in a lovely neighborhood with his wife, Kate (Bening), and his adult son Chris (Benjamin Walker). Chris — loyal and idealistic and a couple degrees more intellectual than his built-himself-up-from-nothing father — survived the war. His brother Larry did not — or rather, after three years with Larry counted missing, Chris and Joe are ready to give him up. Kate, tense and fractured, is anything but, and so when Ann Deever (Francesca Carpanini), a family friend since childhood who used to be engaged to Larry, shows up at the house, the budding connection between her and Chris is going to prove a problem. So is the fact that Ann’s father, Steve, who used to be Joe’s business partner, is in jail, having taken the fall for a bunch of cracked cylinder heads that their factory knowingly shipped out during the war, leading to the deaths of 21 American pilots. Horrified and ashamed, Ann and her brother, George (Hampton Fluker), haven’t spoken to their father since. Joe was exonerated and maintains his innocence — but this is Miller, and the guilty cracks in the Keller household are as obvious as the broken apple tree that stands upstage at the top of the show, a memorial to Larry that split prophetically in a windstorm the night before.
Strictly observing the unities of Greek tragedy, All My Sons is another long day’s journey into night. It’s got three acts, and this is one of those heavy-feeling productions with “one 15-minute intermission and one short break,” where the extended build-up of Acts 1 and 2 often feels downright sleepy. Miller’s not a wit, nor is he particularly agile with seeming small talk or elegant exposition. You get the feeling that he considers such stuff beneath him, and is impatient to get to the big talk, and so you start to get impatient too. What does stick out — over and over again — as the play ploddingly establishes its circumstances, is its blithe sexism. As in Death of a Salesman, Miller is ultimately concerned with fathers and sons — the title itself tells us that — and here, it’s often hard to watch the show’s women without wincing. If you’re female and married in All My Sons, you’re a fretful hysteric, a baby-making airhead, or a sharp-eyed nag. If you’re unmarried, you’re the happy target of all the play’s lumpen attempts at humor, which basically consist of men telling you how nice your legs are and other women sniping that you’ve gained weight or that you won’t know how to feed your husband.
This is Carpanini’s fate as Ann, and man, it’s a slog. And one that O’Brien isn’t helping her to navigate or complicate. He even has her sit affectionately on Letts’s lap at one point, and I watched the women sitting next to me grab each others’ knees in cringing solidarity. Carpanini smiles and commits, but she’s not being asked to do much beyond wearing Jane Greenwood’s pretty A-line dresses, listening raptly to Walker’s Chris swear his love, and laughing self-effacingly whenever the men ogle her, which is all the time. She’s also constantly referred to as a thing. Kate — who, for all her loving, protective instincts, is a textbook example of a woman staunchly upholding structural sexism — won’t accept Ann’s feelings for Chris because she’s still “Larry’s girl.” And when Ann’s own brother shows up to cry J’Accuse! at the Kellers in Act 2, he tells Chris, “Your dad took everything we have … But she’s one item he’s not going to grab.” Ann herself even stares deeply into Chris’s eyes and assures him that he has “a right to whatever you have. Everything, Chris, understand that? To me, too.”
Miller’s regard for the personhood of Ann Deever is so slight that late in Act 3, he has her reveal a shattering piece of information that retcons her entire character, effectively turning her into a plot device. Turns out she’s been carrying the play’s big reveal around in her pocket the entire time, and it causes such a maelstrom of manly emotion in Joe and Chris that it’s easy to get swept along, right past the fact that it also all but annihilates Ann’s emotional logic. In All My Sons, the men get to react and reel and rage, to philosophize and moralize and discover. The women get to do what the plot needs them to do. Bening, Letts, and Walker are all three formidable actors, but while Letts and Walker eventually get to tear down the roof — and it is exciting to watch them do it — it’s a little heartbreaking to witness what the brilliant, incisive Bening is given to work with by comparison. She brings as much life as she can to the brittle, troubled Kate, playing her as fully broken behind a sometimes anxious, sometimes effusive suburban mask. But while her husband and son get fireworks and fury, she eventually moves toward an almost saint-like stillness and sad serenity — the pedestal that’s the flip side of the play’s casual depreciation of women.
It’s still a pleasure to watch Bening, who gives the exhilarating impression of being completely without vanity, as willing to explore Kate’s craven and trivial aspects as her nobler ones. Her tortured, climactic throwdown with her son — in which, for all her knowledge of her own complicity, she’s still blinkered and running — sparks with awful electricity, as do the tempestuous sequences in which Chris and Joe lock horns. Letts is especially affecting as the bluffly evasive, privately crumbling patriarch. His evocation of a man who’s long buried shame beneath indignation and easy dominance — who has done wrong and yet suffers and bellows like one who’s been terribly wronged himself — is eerily recognizable and intensely human. He’s both solid and terribly transparent, while Bening is fierce and flickering. Walker, as their offspring — a kindhearted young man who experiences the end of his trust in his parents’ goodness as the destruction of his whole moral universe — starts the play standing straight and ends it howling, staggering, decimated. He and Letts are raw and ragged in their eventual confrontations, which remain stirring even in light of the issues that have preceded them.
But it’s disheartening that, as a rule, O’Brien’s production has chosen to sidestep these issues rather than addressing them — a tactic that perhaps could have been predicted from the beginning, when O’Brien came in to replace original director Gregory Mosher after a controversy over casting led to Mosher’s departure. Mosher wanted to cast two black actors as Ann and George Deever, and Rebecca Miller — the playwright’s daughter, who manages her father’s estate — objected, saying that she “wanted to be sure the concept held water historically and thematically” and that she worried such a concept “was in danger of white-washing the racism of 1947 suburban Ohio.”
Okay, but … How has the resulting production — which employs colorblind casting, with actors of color playing several unrelated roles including George Deever and the jaded, put-upon neighbor Sue Bayliss (Chinasa Ogbuagu) — done anything to resolve these concerns? Has it not, rather, played right into them? No matter its good intentions, colorblind casting by white directors and producers in plays set so firmly in the recent American past feels blind in a more general sense. It glosses over ugly historical realities, helping to spread a weird irony over the central message of a play like All My Sons, which is about honesty with ourselves and accountability to our fellow human beings. For all the play’s flaws, it’s still immensely powerful to hear Walker’s tormented Chris shout that we “can be better! Once and for all you can know there’s a universe of people outside and you’re responsible to it.” But we’re not being better if we keep producing plays like All My Sons on our biggest stages, with our most extravagant resources, without really digging into what makes them troubling along with what makes them—perhaps, debatably — great. We’re not being better if we keep on trying to teach the play’s lesson without ourselves learning it.
All My Sons is at the American Airlines Theatre. Buy tickets here.