Long Wharf mounts powerful production of Miller drama

All My Sons Play by Arthur Miller. Directed by Arvin Brown. Long Wharf Theatre, one of the America's finest regional companies, has a thing for Arthur Miller. Its first season in 1965 opened with ``The Crucible,'' and it has performed several other Miller plays over the years.

The latest in this ongoing, affectionate tribute is ``All My Sons.'' This 1947 Drama Critics Circle Award-winner is a family drama that laid the groundwork for ``Death of a Salesman'' and ``The Price.''

``All My Sons'' isn't performed as frequently, however - which is a mystery, because it's not a dated play. The issue of World War II munitions profiteering may not be at the forefront of our consciousness today. But the havoc this moral lapse - and its cover-up - wreaks on a family makes for a searing drama that, 40 years later, has the power to leap off the stage.

Mr. Miller is quoted in the program as saying that all drama is a matter of chickens coming home to roost. And so it is in ``All My Sons.''

Factory owner Joe Keller was found criminally liable for making defective airplane parts in World War II that killed pilots. He and his partner were imprisoned, but Joe got himself out early and rebuilt the business.

His older son has been missing in action for three years, and Joe's wife, Kate, clings unreasonably to the hope that he'll return. The younger son, Chris, doesn't believe it and wants to marry his brother's old girlfriend, Ann. She's the daughter of Joe's imprisoned partner.

Mother Kate tries to thwart the plans. The tension heightens when Ann's brother, George, shows up, bearing their father's side of the story.

The secrets boil over, and characters are laid bare with shattering effect.

I don't know if I would go so far as to call ``All My Sons'' an ``actor-proof'' play - the kind that's just so good that poor performances can't ruin it. But it comes close - apart from a few problems with thunky '40s dialogue that the actors could have avoided but didn't.

The Long Wharf crew gives us a strong production. Each of the characters requires a wide emotional range, and the actors fill it well.

As Joe Keller, Ralph Waite (known for playing the father on ``The Waltons'') is coarse and venomous when the part calls for it, but his is a fresh, non-stereotypical rendering - he's also affectionate and intelligent. This makes Joe more sympathetic and his downfall that much more painful than they would be in the hands of a less skillful performer.

Joyce Ebert is effective in conveying both Kate Keller's fragility and hysteria in trying keep the truth at bay, and her Earth-mother strength, as she rises at the end to exhort her son to ``live now.'' And Christopher Curry fully conveys George's righteous, steely anger as well as his floundering resolve when the family disarms him with love.

Director Arvin Brown has taken as great care with small moments as with the explosive, revelatory scenes. At one point, Kate pulls Ann (Frances McDormand) aside to find out if the girl still waiting for her missing son. Ann says,``No, Kate'' to the mother, but the line is slung firmly across the stage so that Chris (Jamey Sheridan) will hear. He does hear: The reply lands like a kiss, and he glows.

Long Wharf could do a lot worse than choosing Miller as a guiding light: He work raises timeless questions, such as: What do you do when the father you love is responsible for deaths of others? How do you keep your love for someone untainted when your two families' histories are ensnarled? At what point do you say `no' to a wrong activity when entire industries are doing it?

Miller's plays challenge us with these difficult and complex issues. If they're done well, as is this one at Long Wharf, they also leave the audience stunned.

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