REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
The title of All My Sons, Arthur Miller’s riveting play of guilt, heartbreak, and tragedy, refers to 21 young World War II combat pilots, who were needlessly killed when cracked cylinder heads were unknowingly installed in their airplanes. The blame for this lays at the feet of Joe Keller, a successful manufacturer who decided that since there was so much pressure on him to produce much needed airplane parts, that he decided to push the faulty heads through, instructing his factory manager, Steve Deever, to paint over the cracks and ship them out anyway. But Joe allowed Steve to accept the blame after the tragedies and is now languishing in prison while Joe has gotten off scot-free.
As it turns out, guilt is taking its toll on Joe and his wife Kate, who also knows the truth about what happened. All My Sons shows the consequences of this tragedy of judgment, as it plays out in a tensely-charged production currently playing at the Elite Theatre Company in Oxnard.
As the play opens, we are led to believe that Kate is the character going through the most turmoil. Her pilot son Larry is missing in action and she fears he was one of those who died as the result of Joe’s cowardice and negligence. It isn’t until the shattering conclusion of the play that we learn the true nature of Larry’s fate.
Jim Seerden is the perfect person to play Joe Keller. Avuncular and jovial, Joe has continued his successful manufacturing business after the war and is grooming his surviving son Chris to take over when he retires. Seerden is ideal in portraying shaded, layered characters like Joe Keller, whose mood darkens as the play moves into its final stages. Theresa Secor is explosive as Kate, a woman who is unable to sleep because of her inability to accept the fate of her son Larry, and Joe’s possible culpability in what happened to him. She uses superstition to convince herself that Larry is still alive somewhere, and has her astrologist neighbor Frank Lubey (Mike Gerbi) compile a horoscope to alleviate her fears.
Chris Keller, played with great sensitivity by Allen Gardner, is also suffering from guilt, but for additional reasons. As a commander in the Air Force, he was devastated when all of the pilots in his squadron died as a result of the faulty cylinder heads. Chris has also fallen in love with his brother’s fiancée Ann, who has the double misfortune of being the daughter of Steve Deever, now in jail for the deaths of the pilots. Ann has long since accepted Larry’s fate and is able to move on with her life. She is the strongest character in the play, and Kelly Whittaker is admirable in her sympathetic portrayal.
The supporting cast fills out the production with effective acting all around. Jolyn Johnson is Sue Bayliss, the ever-smiling neighbor who masks hidden hatred for Joe, who she believes escaped prison by “pulling a fast one.” Scott Blanchard plays Sue’s husband Jim, a successful but frustrated doctor who feels stifled in his humdrum career. Eric Mello plays Ann’s older brother George, who, after visiting his father in prison, realizes his innocence and comes to “rescue” Ann from marrying Chris. Sarah Boughton is George’s old girlfriend Lydia, who ended up marrying Frank and lives a quiet, cheerfully domestic life. Wesley Umali plays the Bayliss’s young son Bert, who plays a key role in triggering the final confrontation that leads to Joe’s fate.
Like the plays of his contemporaries, Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller’s works are often marked by his ability to plumb the depths of familial relationships, revealing hidden tensions and truths that are masked by day-to-day banality and pretense. Social responsibility tends to work as an excuse for flaws or mistakes made, which often leads to tragedy. All My Sons is a superb example of a family that has masked inexcusable and reckless behavior for the purpose of maintaining the stasis of normal, middle-American existence.
Kudos to Brian Robert Harris for his exemplary, sensitive direction. I should also mention the exquisitely detailed and meticulously constructed set, depicting the exterior of a comfortable, middle-class American home, designed and constructed by John Eslick and Will Shupe with the help of Angela DeCicco.
The effort the actors put into this show was evidenced by the fact that when they emerged to greet the audience afterward, both Seerden and Secor were still engulfed in tears, a testament to their powerful performances that came from the heart, not just from a script.
All My Sons plays through November 13 at the Elite Theatre Company in Oxnard. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.