Miller's memorable `All My Sons' comes to TV

All My Sons PBS, Monday, 9-11:30 p.m. Stars: James Whitmore, Michael Learned, Aidan Quinn. Writer: Arthur Miller. Producer: Iris Merlis. Director: Jack O'Brien. ``American Playhouse'' opens its sixth season with a memorable, if overwrought, production of a memorable, if overwrought, play by Arthur Miller.

``All My Sons'' was first produced on Broadway in 1947, and its dual major themes - enduring morality vs. expedient pragmatism, and the guilt of war profiteers - were especially timely, coming so soon after World War II. Today they are timely once again. Two other themes - father-son relationships, and the uncertainty of the fate of MIAs - are also especially timely.

This adaptation of the play makes its points over and over again, sometimes in maddeningly simplistic scenes, all staged in an Ohio backyard.

Director Jack O'Brien allows the fine cast to put on a kind of acting competition, in which each performer seems to try to outdo the other in a series of melodramatic episodes. James Whitmore, Michael Learned, and Aidan Quinn wring many moments of pathos out of Miller's humorless morality play, which teeters between the mechanical and the lyrical. Miller, however, always manages to acquit himself with surprising, last-minute, pyrotechnic displays of craftsmanship; whenever a scene seems about to get out of hand, he inserts a totally believable and poignant exchange that will have you in tears.

``All My Sons'' is the tale of a father, ambitious for wealth, who corrupts all those around him, causing great harm to an innocent partner and the deaths of 21 pilots of P40s with the defective parts he provided. The effect of such immorality on the man, his family, and the world are investigated earnestly by Miller.

I find it difficult to fault ``All My Sons'' on its sense of morality, but I believe its air of self-righteousness needs to be leavened with some compassion for those who haven't managed to live up to Miller's seemingly perfect standards for humanity.

This is an oversimplified, didactic play, produced with stagy overemphasis. But, somehow in the end it proves to be a moving theatrical experience.

After this production, ``American Playhouse,'' PBS's acclaimed weekly drama anthology series, will be featuring plays by such American literary greats as Eudora Welty, Horton Foote, and Lanford Wilson this season.

On Jan. 26 ``American Playhouse'' will air ``The Prodigious Hickey,'' a drama based upon the zany antics of prep school students at Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, popularized by Owen Johnson in the Saturday Evening Post at the turn of the century. David M. Davis serves as executive director and Lindsay Law as executive producer of the series, presented by KCET, Los Angeles; South Carolina ETV; WGBH, Boston; and WNET, New York.

Arthur Unger is the Monitor's television critic.

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