In All My Sons, the play that would precede Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller offers another portrait of an American family withering under the pressures of capitalism. The entire play is set in the backyard of Joe Keller (Tracy Letts), a successful suburban businessman who sold parts to the military during the war. A scandal involving cracked engine cylinders and twenty-one dead pilots left Joe a free man and his partner, Steve Deever, a felon. His wife, Kate (Annette Bening), strongarms the family into believing that their oldest son, Larry, is still alive—he’s been missing since at least ’44. His living son, Chris (Benjamin Walker), a sort of full-sized boy scout, is thirty-two and still in love with dad. Ready to start a family of his own, Chris invites “Larry’s girl,” Anne Deever (Francesca Carpanini), to suss out whether she shares his romantic feelings. Anne is Steve’s daughter.
All My Sons is classic Miller, with the added luxury of avoiding Salesman‘s overexposure. The lines are grandiose, reaching, but in the mouths of the right actors, unparalleled. Joe, for example, reads the want ads “to see what people want, y’know?” Kate, in a moment of either denial or self-awareness, or some combination of both, insists, “Certain things have to be, and certain things can never be … That’s why there’s God. Otherwise anything could happen.” At one point a neighbor (Chinasa Ogbuagu) says, “If Chris wants people to put on the hair shirt let him take off his broadcloth.” Sure, it’s not how people really talk, but there’s a sincerity to the writing that rewards an earnest and receptive audience. For all his debts to Ibsen, this is the American King Lear, or perhaps the American Oedipus Rex.
Unfortunately, Jack O’Brien’s production is somewhat safe and predictable: it feels very much like reading rather than seeing the play, and there is no indication that this All My Sons is all that different from one that could have been staged ten or twenty or even thirty years ago. At a time when questions of economic and criminal justice are fertile ground for theatrical exploration, O’Brien’s take is just a tad complacent. Which isn’t to say it doesn’t have its strengths: the acting, no doubt, is first-rate, and in Miller little is as important as that. Still, while the production frequently pleases, it does not linger.