The spring rush of musicals notwithstanding, this theater season might more charitably be remembered as one in which creaky plays were given more vigor than anyone might have guessed. “The Little Foxes” (critical barbs aside), “London Assurance” and now, Off Broadway, Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” display a fresh vogue for old fashions.
Miller’s 1947 play, an early work that introduces the playwright’s big themes — not to mention his melodrama and moralizing — is given a tight, smart staging by director Barry Edelstein in this Roundabout Theater production (on the company’s smaller Off Broadway stage). If the final, overwrought half-hour remains defiantly of its time — I’ve never seen a production that didn’t lose me here — the more leisurely and subtle first act is, in the hands of Edelstein and his cast, as compelling as the genre gets.
Lavishing as much attention on the secondary storyline of young love as on the central father-son conflict, Edelstein fleshes out the play’s depiction of youthful disenchantment, downplaying the drama’s more heavy-handed treatment of the war-profiteering father. Or at least he does so as much as possible: For a play that pretends to struggle with moral ambiguity, “All My Sons” remains so blatantly unambiguous — a self-inflicted bullet to the brain is a pretty thorough argument-ender — that only top-notch direction and performances can oil the creaks.
This production comes close. John Cullum stars as Joe Keller, the family patriarch whose machinery plant is cranking out cash during the post-World War II boom of the mid-1940s. Son Chris (Michael Hayden) is a war vet settling, rather uncomfortably, into life back home, while mom Kate (Linda Stephens) is falling apart altogether, tenuously holding onto the false hope that her other son wasn’t killed in the war — as the rest of the clan has come to accept — but will instead turn up someday soon.
Arriving for a weekend visit is Ann (Angie Phillips). Formerly (and literally) the girl next door and once betrothed to the missing son, she’s now in love with Chris. Their secret marriage plans will devastate Kate by proving that all but she have given up her lost boy for dead.
But another secret is about to surface that will drop an even bigger bomb on the family. Having been exonerated of criminal action in the sale of faulty airplane parts that resulted in the wartime deaths of 21 American pilots, Joe is being implicated once again by his former partner, now doing prison time for the deed. Situation is especially sticky since the partner is the father of Ann and of George (Stephen Barker Turner), who comes to the Keller homestead convinced that Joe is a killer and that the family business is founded on blood money.
The moral conundrum is thus established: The idealistic Chris must choose between his honor and his beloved father. But conundrum is a misnomer here: There’s never any real doubt about which way the hero will go, and Miller pads his case by unearthing a letter from the dead son that further seals the father’s fate. If the machinery in the Keller plant worked as fixedly as the machinery of Miller’s writing, those 21 pilots would be receiving their pensions about now.
Nor does the text’s melodrama go entirely unchecked in this production, with some overwrought acting and staging arriving just in time for the big revelations. Better are the comparatively subtle symbols of the production design — rose petals scattered like drops of blood on the stark white porch, a housefront divided into abstract pieces.
And better still are the performances of Hayden and Phillips as the young lovers, idealistic but no fools. Cullum is appropriately guilt-stricken and defensive — in short, haunted — as the father, while Stephens seems a bit too sophisticated for this suburban milieu. Still, her grief is palpable, and gives the production no small measure of its poignancy. Turner, as the distraught son of Joe’s scapegoat partner, is suitably agitated, and the rest of the cast is fine as various neighbors (Anne Lange is especially memorable as a not-so-nice truth-teller).
At 50 years old, “All My Sons” might not have the emotional punch of its youth, but it’s being well cared for by Edelstein and his cast.