ALL MY SONS, a theater review -- Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Saturday, January 14, 2017 6:28 PM

Arthur Miller’s ALL MY SONS is one of the great pieces of American theatre for a lot of reasons. It’s an effortless exercise in structure and story-building. It’s beautifully wrought language evokes a period in American history oft-overlooked in contemporary theatre. And it’s social commentary on personal responsibility in the wake of American big business is both eye-opening and heart-breaking. The St. Louis Rep, currently celebrating it’s 50th season, has mounted as unsuspecting a production as one could hope for — in other words, it sneaks up on you and doesn’t let go until the play’s final devastating moments.

Some might argue differently, but it’s heartbreak that drives ALL MY SONS’ central characters and helmer Seth Gordon weaves it into the very fabric of this gut-wrenching production with exceptional ease and understated grace. He does a fine job with pacing, driving Miller’s slow-burn of a first act with creative staging and interesting pictures, giving the Keller family and their neighbors plenty of places to stand their ground or hastily retreat. This is what makes Miller’s play so fascinating. These characters are broken — seen in their actions, echoed in their words — only they just don’t know it, they’ve been living in denial for so long. But Miller doesn’t let us know they’re broken either as we, the audience, are invited into their idyllic world where, despite a tragedy from year’s earlier, somehow this family found success in the ashes of a great misfortune. It is the steady unravelling of this existence that gives this play it’s unrelenting power.

John Woodson’s Joe Keller is both angry and daunting, an accurate combination for a man living in fear of the truth he’s built his entire life upon. He lumbers about the stage, making claims about his place in business and his responsibility to his son — a sword he wields with unrelenting determination. I’d wished Margaret Daly as his wife Kate had been a bit stronger, but she does an admirable job cutting anyone who threatens her belief system to the core and maintaining her near psychotic perseverance to the very end. As the second act prophet of doom and revealer of truths, Zac Hoogendyk’s George Deever is a force to be reckoned with. He isn’t onstage long, but Hoogendyk brought this character’s tortured conflict to life with unflinching certainty. Part Miller, part director Seth Gordon, all Hoogendyk, the second act kicked off with a bang and never looked back.

This production, however, is rooted in Miller’s tragic figure, Chris Keller, impeccably brought to life by Patrick Ball. Homespun and idealistic, Ball’s Chris has lived his life placing his father, all fathers really, and tangentially himself as the father he’d like to be, on a pedestal of expectations that are rooted in ethics and man’s place in the bigger picture. This, of course, is Miller’s central theme and where the play’s title gains it’s gravitas. God, you want to be that hopeful, that unblemished, that rose-colored-glasses wearing person. You want to be him, you want to be Chris Keller. And you want him to succeed, to overcome the house of cards his parents have built. The true telling of an actor is an audience’s capacity to empathize for the character they create and when actor Ball entered the play’s third act, knowing what he was walking into and feeling for him and the loss he was about to endure, my heart about near broke — as did the waterworks. But every leading man needs a leading lady to illuminate his dimensionality and Mairin Lee as Ann Deever was both lovely and wondrous as a woman who’s not letting go. The only character resolutely bound in truth, Lee’s Ann stuns, even as she struggles to keep her head above water. Poised and proud, Ms. Lee stood her ground as a woman in love and a woman at the end of her existence — she can’t go on alone and she won’t go on anymore. Both strong and vulnerable, Ms. Lee brought great attention to a character sometimes overlooked in the Keller family ordeal. The rest of the ensemble was more than capable. Grant Fletcher Prewitt’s Frank Lubey was spot-on as the horoscope loving neighbor and Sue Bayliss ripped into her assault on the innocent Ann Deever with relish and verve. 

Scenic designer Michael Ganio doesn’t beat around the bush. His innovative design combines both realism and representation informing us this family is fractured. The period playing space juxtaposed against the flat and jutting maze-like walls of the Keller home, a veritable house of cards, indicate a family trapped in their own creation. It’s a smart design and one that plays out beautifully, especially at the end of act one when a stunning light reveal informs us the Keller family issues are far greater than we can imagine. 

ALL MY SONS runs until January 29. Get your tickets and shoot for orchestra center of the Loretto-Hilton to get the full-on impact of this story’s devastating conclusion.

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