They don’t write plays like All My Sons anymore.
Arthur Miller was clearly following the ancient Greek template, a template that, like a silver dish holding thunder and fire, also contained the blueprint for America’s greatest 20th-century dramatists, including Miller along with Eugene O’Neill, August Wilson and Tennessee Williams.
Like Oedipus the King, All My Sons (at the Geffen) is a murder mystery in which some characters already know an awful truth before the play begins, while others slowly learn of it, along with the audience. Patriarch Joe Keller (Len Cariou) knows from the get-go that a few years back during World War II, as CEO of his private military-supplies company, he authorized the shipment of faulty aircraft parts that resulted in the planes of 20 American pilots falling out of the sky. The military needed those parts, and for Keller to delay such a request during wartime could have cost Keller his business. Though he knew the parts were faulty, he figured somebody down the line would snag the problem before the parts were installed. To be more precise, he authorized the shipment by default — leaving the actual dirty work to his partner, a man named Deever, while Keller dodged Deever’s desperate phone calls. Deever now rots in prison while Keller basks in retirement, having effectively pinned all the blame on Deever.
Keller’s conscience is a bit like heartburn: It comes and goes but, with some steely resolve, it can be ignored during its most severe bouts. Those bouts are aggravated by Keller’s wife, Kate (Laurie Metcalf), who remains obsessed with the death of their prodigal son, a fighter pilot whose plane went down shortly after those faulty parts left Keller’s supply house. Hmmm.
The play opens on the anniversary of the young man’s death. The opening tableau contains a terrible storm, during which a tree planted in the boy’s memory is suddenly cleaved in two by lightning. Double hmmm.
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It probably goes without saying that the Kellers and the Deevers are not the best of friends right now. So when Deever’s daughter, Ann (Amy Sloan), comes to court the Kellers’ second-born son, Chris (understudy Heath Freeman), she’s an interloper in all Keller eyes except the ones belonging to love-struck Chris. But Ann brings more than clues. She brings written evidence that finally shatters and shutters the House of Keller.
You can almost smell the freshly cut lawn of Robert Blackman’s cinematically detailed set, sculpted by Daniel Ionazzi’s lights. But it’s the chemical balances among the actors that fuel Randall Arney’s powerful staging: the sexy sizzle between Freeman’s charming Chris, with his almost ridiculous rectitude, and Sloan’s Ann, who is somehow both perky and sultry with a single toss of her head. Metcalf’s slightly deranged Kate is a monument, with the arch of her neck and a face subtly twisted in perpetual despondency. Similarly, Cariou brings multiple layers to Joe Keller, tempering a heart of steel that you’d think could never melt with touches of affability.
The shock and dismay of Chris — Dad, how could you?! — renders the drama something of a throwback to an era when moral compromise in business was still appalling. In Miller’s universe, right and wrong are clear entities containing an inevitable, if slow-moving, system of justice. Expedience is no excuse. Which is why Miller’s play is so quaintly optimistic and as comforting as a warm blanket.
ALL MY SONS | By ARTHUR MILLER | Presented by the GEFFEN PLAYHOUSE, 10886 LeConte Ave., Westwood | Through May 28 | (310) 208-5454 or www.GeffenPlayhouse.com.