"All My Sons" at Palm Beach Dramaworks: An Arthur Miller Classic Retains Its Relevance in a Glittering New Theater
If there had been an Occupy movement in post-World War II America, the fictional character Joe Keller in Arthur Miller's All My Sons would have made for a model nemesis. Joe is a one-percenter, a war profiteer, and a manipulative snake who probably sent 21 fighter pilots plummeting to their deaths via some airplane parts he knew were defective. Other characters in the play label Joe a murderer by proxy, and his justification is always capitalism — the necessary cutting of corners that keeps his business running efficiently and his family fed. Change the year to present day and turn those fatal machine parts into credit default swaps and this play could have been a Zeitgeist-capturing polemic by Tim Robbins.
Palm Beach Dramaworks' current production of All My Sons isn't just about the enduring nature of Miller's 1947 breakthrough — a classically constructed, carefully calibrated Greek tragedy that may be more relevant now than when it premiered. It's also about Palm Beach Dramaworks itself and the theater company's much-publicized migration from its sardine can on Banyan Boulevard to the elegant Don & Ann Brown Theater anchoring Clematis Street, formerly the Cuillo Center for the Arts. The renovated theater represents a colossal leap forward in Dramaworks' evolution, from 84 seats to 218; from constricted, minimal casts operating on a small stage to abundant, liberated casts positioned on a 30-foot-high proscenium.
There is no bolder statement about the potential of this rebooted Dramaworks than Michael Amico's towering set design. The backyard of the Kellers' home, where both acts take place, is rendered as a ravishing idyll, complete with foliage framing either side of a cozy home and garden. There's even a powerful illusion of depth of field in a set that goes above and beyond the call of duty; it, more than any one actor, is the star of this show.
In the home live Joe Keller (Kenneth Tigar); his wife, Kate (Elizabeth Dimon); and their son Chris (Jim Ballard). Three and a half years earlier, their other son, Larry, a soldier in WWII, went missing in battle. The delusional Kate is the only one who believes Larry might still be alive, and she's turned his bedroom into a shrine/mausoleum for her boy. Outside, a symbolic tree, planted for Larry and newly snapped at the trunk by a lightning strike, is a constant reminder of his absence.
From Larry's assumed death to Joe's shady role in the aforementioned military disaster, this is a family haunted by the twin specters of guilt and avoidance from the recent past — elephants in the backyard that this tortured trio will broach time and again over the play's one-day duration. These old war wounds will fester anew thanks to the arrival of Ann Deever (ginger-haired beauty Kersti Bryan), Larry's old flame, whom Chris is planning to marry; and, later, the surprise appearance of Ann's clench-fisted brother, George (Cliff Burgess, a boiling kettle with steam practically shooting from his ears).
As Chris, Ballard looks and acts like a '40s matinee idol, his confident exterior masking years of shame percolating below the surface. Dimon's Kate is the show's bleeding heart, full of naive hope and belated grief; barring one climactic moment in which her emotional state shifts drastically and implausibly, it's an exquisite performance. But Tigar leaves the strongest impression, humanizing Joe's inhuman transgressions with pity, regret, and desperate acceptance of his sins.
Incredibly, I've listed only half the players of All My Sons; Dramaworks has already made good on its pledge to mount more large-cast shows in its new home. In this case, Miller has given us five more characters, neighbors of the Kellers' who wander into their copious backyard, occasionally dispensing news. But while Kenneth Kay, Margery Lowe, Nanique Gheridian, Dave Hyland, and child actor Kaden Coden (or Leandre Thivierge, depending on the night) are all fine performers — none of them misses a beat — their characters can't help but blend into the glorious background. Superfluous to most of the action, they are the veritable wallpaper on which the central family can hang its psychic ailments. They're unable to upstage Larry's tree, but, then again, it's a pretty impressive tree.
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