Sins of the Father

Arthur Miller's powerful drama All My Sons, now drawing gasps and tears from audiences riveted by Classical Acting Company's production at Richland College, was written during wartime. It concerns a family wrestling with the postwar realization that the father's success as a defense contractor during World War II was the result of shady dealings that may have led to the deaths of American pilots.

The father, Joe Keller, has let his business partner go to prison rather than take responsibility for the scheme to sell the Army faulty pistons. Joe has convinced his wife, Kate, and son Chris, along with most of their neighbors, that he is blameless. As Joe sees it, whatever he did, he did to keep his business going during the war, to provide a good living for his family and to build a healthy company to turn over to his two sons when he retires. In the country Miller dubs "the land of the great big dog,'' Joe Keller is living the dream.

But there are signs that the dream is about to shatter. When the play begins, Joe's eldest son, Larry, a combat pilot, has been missing in action and presumed dead for more than three years. Younger son Chris, now working at his father's plant, has fallen in love with Ann, Larry's fiancee and the daughter of Joe's now-imprisoned business partner. Kate stubbornly refuses to accept Chris and Ann's marriage plans because that would mean admitting once and for all that Larry won't be coming home. Then Ann's brother George shows up, desperate to stop Ann from marrying the son of the man he sees as his own family's mortal enemy. The situation is at the tipping point.

All the makings of a soap opera, certainly. But since this is Arthur Miller and not Thornton Wilder, All My Sons sounds and feels as timeless as Greek tragedy and as contemporary as the evening news. Just as he did with Death of a Salesman, written two years later, Miller uses All My Sons as sharp social criticism. Both plays reflect the ruthlessness of American business, of financial success at any cost, including human souls. Both plays explore the complicated dynamics between aging fathers and grown sons. In Salesman, the tragedy lies in Willy Loman's need for respect from sons who don't see him as the heroic father figure he thinks he should be, and from his thankless employers, who have shoved him aside. In All My Sons, Joe Keller is everything Willy dreamed of being and was not--but at a price that will destroy him.

It seems appropriate to revisit this play as American lives again are being lost in a war that has proved incalculably profitable for that old ogre, the "military-industrial complex.'' But its relevance to current events is just one reason All My Sons moves an audience so deeply. More than anything, this is a play about family, about what happens when a family finally faces up to its ugliest truths in an effort to move forward. The Kellers are imprisoned emotionally by their refusal to see Joe for what he really is. On another level, they symbolize an entire country's myopia concerning American military actions overseas. Toward the end of the play, Chris begs his mother to look beyond her unswerving loyalty to her husband and to her missing son. There is a world beyond their back yard, he tells her. His speech could be the playwright's plea to the nation, in the 1940s or today: "Once and for all, you must know that there's a universe of people outside, and you're responsible to it.''

Classical Acting Company, in this second production of its inaugural season, has assembled a cast of experienced actors who understand the power of Miller's words but wisely play to the realism of their subtle rhythms and idiomatic phrases. The actors speak in low, casual tones (appropriate for the intimate acting space they're in), and they often let lines overlap. All My Sons could quickly descend into melodrama if overplayed, but these actors never let it. It is ensemble acting at its finest.

As Joe Keller, Richard Zavaglia gives a noble and deeply layered performance as a likable dad whose good intentions can't, in the end, outweigh his moral missteps. When he crumbles, it's gut-wrenching. Mary Tharp Booty makes Kate Keller a sweet but fragile mother whose devotion to family blinds her to their faults. Her feral moan at the realization that a son has died is profoundly sad.

It is crucial to cast just the right sort of actor as Chris, the good son who serves as the catalyst for the family's upheaval. Matthew Gray is that sort of actor. Not classically handsome, a little soft around the midsection, Gray reflects so much of Zavaglia's Joe that they are instantly believable as father and son. For the two and a half hours they're onstage together, they seem to share DNA.

Regan Adair has one explosive scene in All My Sons, playing Ann's brother George. He must enter in a state of exhaustion and quickly deliver an emotional wallop that sends all the characters reeling. Adair, a young actor who's already an expert at the naturalistic acting style a play like this requires, commands the stage without overpowering anyone else's performance. He's marvelous to watch.

The whole cast nails it. Chamblee Ferguson and Heather Henry provide a touch of comic relief as the Kellers' next-door neighbors, but even they have serious moments as their characters' true feelings about Joe are forced to come out. Renee Krapff and Halim Jabbour play a couple who seem blithely oblivious to the troubles in the Keller household. Flame-haired Andra Laine brings a bright spot of midcentury glamour to her role as the conflicted Ann. Young Chasen Greenwood is all gangly legs and giggles as Bert, the kid down the block who seems to fill a space for Joe left by the missing son Larry.

On the technical side, scenic designer Jennifer Owen looked to painter Edward Hopper to inspire the main set piece, a stark, pale yellow two-story house, seen from the back porch. If only lighting designer Mike Garner had carried out his work with such precision. The back steps, a main area for characters to sit or stand to deliver key speeches, is in shadow. All the light settings could be bumped up a few notches in intensity, since most of the play takes place in daylight hours. These are characters who shouldn't be left standing in the dark. Attention must be paid.

Ado, a-done, a-did. Classical Acting Company offered a Wild West-themed Much Ado About Nothing not long ago, and now Kitchen Dog Theater weighs in with one that's not quite wild enough with its ado to make it worth a-doing.

Performed in contemporary clothes but using Shakespeare's old-fashioned lingo, this Much Ado features nice performances from its unusually earthy Beatrice and Benedick (Tina Parker and David Stroh). But the rest of the cast just doesn't gel. David Goodman and Leah Spillman make a stringy, underfed couple as the second-string lovers, Claudio and Hero. David Middleman is so laid-back as Leonato, Shakespeare's "host'' for the double wedding party, he seems sedated. Christina Vela and Linda Comess torture the comedy right out of the silly roles of Dogberry and Verges by shrieking, blowing whistles and being annoying 20 different ways. Dressed up in military jodhpurs, baldheaded Anthony L. Ramirez, playing Don Pedro, bears a disturbing resemblance to Mussolini.

It's left to Parker and Stroh to juice some laughs into their characters' unlikely romance. Tricked into believing each is crazy about the other, they stop trading insults and start to see each other through the eyes of love. "I do spy some marks of love in her,'' says Stroh's befuddled Benedick. Meanwhile, Parker's Beatrice is staring at him with about as much desire as a vegan presented with a pot roast. These two are good, but the rest of this Ado is a dud.