In choosing to begin his tenure with Arthur Miller’s first Broadway hit, “All My Sons,” new Denver Center Theater Company artistic director Kent Thompson is paying homage not only to one of America’s greatest playwrights, but to Miller’s vision of an America that lives up to its ideals — a vision that is consistent with the ambitious plans Thompson has laid out for DCTC in his New Vision New Voices program.
As the lights come up on the in-the-round theater, a trumpet reports. Is it an anthem for the passing of a creed in eclipse, or a reveille to awaken a family and citizenry living in denial?
Time and place is a late Sunday morning in a backyard on the outskirts of an American town just a couple of years after World War II. Under the enveloping boughs of poplars that stretch across the ceiling, amid the serenity of Bill Forrester’s bucolic set, Joe Keller (Mike Hartman) holds court with his family and neighbors, deftly concocting a contradictory disposition of healthy cynicism and avuncular wisdom toward all he surveys.
Yet there, to one side, like a nagging question, lies the broken trunk and withering branches of an apple tree planted in memory of Keller’s eldest son, Larry, a pilot presumed killed at sea in an air battle three years before.
In a compelling performance both transcendent in its faith and haunting in its despair, Jeanne Paulsen, as Kate Keller, looms over the proceedings much like the ghost of her son, which she holds at bay with the promise of his unlikely reappearance.
Letting Miller’s nearly 60-year-old setting speak for itself, director Bruce K. Sevy conjures the publicly polite, personally repressed post-war personalities that ignore what the freshly fallen sapling begs to ask — the nagging question of Joe’s complicity in failing aircraft and crew deaths, including that of his own son. With themes that obviously presage present events — when earnings-per-share drive corporate scandals, no-bid military contracts and complaints of inferior equipment or lack thereof for American troops — Miller continues to speak volumes.
“Where do you live, where have you come from?,” the playwright asks through the Kellers’ living son, Chris. “Is that as far as your mind can see, the business? … Don’t you have a country? Don’t you live in the world? … You’re not even an animal, no animal kills his own, what are you?”
David Furr, as Chris, gleans the best in Joe and Kate to deliver a finely crafted portrait of geniality and idealism, and Rachel Fowler, as Ann Deever, escapes the curse of her character’s good looks with a generous and forgiving portrayal that exhibits the depth of the young Miller’s writing. Supporting perfs demand equal allegiance from the audience.
In giving his inaugural voice to Miller’s searing questions, a.d. Thompson clearly means to address that fallen apple tree, and all “for which it stands.”