Thursday, January 10, 2013

Review: (Ottawa) All My Sons

(photo via Twitter; credit: Maria Vartanova)
Beast of War
by Jim Murchison

Christmas is over. It is time to get back to reality. There are few playwrights that expose reality and lift the veil off the convenient little lies we live with better than Arthur Miller. The Ottawa Little Theatre first performed All My Sons in 1949, just two years after its Broadway debut, but 43 years ahead of Canada's first professional theatre production in 1992. The historical notes in the programme indicate that this is the third time that OLT has performed a production of All My Sons but they have never done Death of a Salesman largely considered to be Miller's greatest work. I don't know why that is, but it doesn't really matter as Miller crafts wonderful dialogue and deals with the broken myth of the American dream in this moody and thoughtful 1947 drama about the continuance of life after World War II. 

Tom Pidgeon’s set is a slice of upper middle class Americana. The picket fence, the wood and wicker lawn furniture, trees and perfect flower bushes frame a beautiful house with a mascot roof. An octagonal window glows from the upstairs guest bedroom. David Magladry’s lighting completes the image of the perfect day in the perfect home on a bright sunny day with just a hint of wispy white cloud on the horizon. Things however are not as they appear.

It is interesting that Miller never mentions Hitler, nor even the words World War; merely the war.

The basic premise of the play is that 21 men died because of faulty P-40 cylinder heads manufactured by a company run by Joe Kellar and his neighbour and partner Steve Deever. Steve was sentenced and Joe, after a short internment, was exonerated, but no one is certain that the entire story has been told and of course it hasn't because the play is the rest of the story.

Joan Sullivan Eddy has directed this production cleanly. There is a sense of humour to the characters' awkwardness and self deception that covers the convenient lies that facilitate the denial of their own reality. There are no real standouts in the show because it is very balanced with good performances from everyone on stage.  

Kate Kellar as the mother who refuses to believe her son is dead, is played with a stoic arrogance by Cheryl Jackson, but she allows us to see glimpses of her underlying fragility. Her husband Joe has an affable congeniality. He believes you should let bygones be bygones, but you also sense underlying feelings of guilt in Mike Kennedy's very honest performance. Patrick McIntyre, as the surviving son Chris has a shy and nervous energy that erupts into anger and pain when his ideals crumble in front of him. Both sides of Chris are played convincingly by McIntyre.

Ann Van Leeuwen is well cast as the beautiful young woman Ann Deever who Chris is looking to marry but who also was originally his brother Larry's sweetheart. There is a sweet sadness in her performance that foreshadows her knowledge of a real truth hidden from the family. The most perpetually angry character is Anne's brother George played with ferocious indignation by Danny McLeod who blames Joe for what he believes to be his father's wrongful imprisonment. Even he almost gets seduced into complacency by Joe's smooth charm.

The rest of the cast play the friends and neighbours that supply the much needed comic relief, but no one in the play is entirely one dimensional and their characters give flashes of the underlying resentment of a man and his company that caused the deaths of 21 brave young men. It is interesting that Miller never mentions Hitler, nor even the words World War; merely the war. In an era filled with propaganda, this play is not about the spoils of war or the liberators of freedom but rather the pawns of the war and the profiteers. The cracked cylinder heads of the P-40's are an allegory of the fractured American dream. 

It is ironic that Miller's relationship with the original director Elia Kazan was dissolved when Kazan gave up names to the House Un-American Activities Committee. Life imitating art I suppose. Miller well understood that under duress basically good people can do horrible things. This production represents Miller's vision admirably well.

All My Sons runs at Ottawa Little Theatre to January 26

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