Arthur Miller was always a fairly transparent writer; one can spot early on in his plays the tragic train wreck that’s on its way. So the figurative chest-thumping on display in South Coast Rep’s production of “All My Sons” is, in and of itself, a legitimate approach to the playwright’s earliest hit. Under Martin Benson’s direction, though, the production doesn’t really build to the inevitable climax. Instead there’s just a bland weepiness that gets louder toward the end.
Miller’s play, written and set in 1947, focuses on the Keller family. Joe (Peter Michael Goetz), in his 60s, holds court in his suburban back yard, where neighborhood kids come to be entertained by his charismatic playfulness. A successful manufacturer, Joe became rich off the war but also paid the price — losing his oldest son Larry, who’s been missing in action for over three years.
Joe’s wife, Kate (Linda Gehringer), still won’t acknowledge that their son has died, and the family is in a state of denial when the play begins.
But younger son Chris (Simon Billig), who survived the war, is about to change all that. He’s invited Larry’s sweetheart Ann (Nancy Bell) back home in order to propose marriage to her. This effort to move on with life leads to a series of discoveries about the past that shake the family’s foundations.
The power of Miller’s drama lies not in shocking suspense but in the watching of characters forced to confront long-suppressed truths that they always suspected but, for their own sanity, could never admit to.
Benson, however, allows the male characters to tip their desperation too early. Billig, Darin Singleton (as Ann’s brother George) and, to a lesser extent Goetz, wear their weaknesses on their sleeves, begging for audience empathy. The younger men deliver especially pouty performances.
The women are stronger, not because Miller gave them less to hide but because the actresses play the characters’ denial rather than the underlying pathos. Linda Gehringer, Nancy Bell and Sarah Brooke (as the Keller’s cynical pragmatist neighbor Sue) are all far more convincing than their male counterparts.
Tony Fanning’s very attractive set, including the facade of a light-blue home that seems built to scale, feels more like the front yard of a house than the back yard, which it’s supposed to be, and the yard has limited playing areas and a contrived privacy.
Alex Jaeger’s period costumes are fine overall, although they do seem to contribute to Billig’s uncomfortable presence. The staging itself is often awkward: More than once the character who’s delivering a significant monologue sits while the listeners stand.
It’s a tribute to the sturdiness of Miller’s play that it survives these weaknesses and still delivers some affecting scenes.