Follow the money

Fine production of All My Sons strikes contemporary chord

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Adding the production of Arthur Miller's All My Sons to the Oak Park Festival Theatre summer season on Mondays and Tuesdays was an inspired move. It's a perfect play for their outdoor venue. Miller's timeless work, given a powerful, tightly focused production with intense, believable performances, is still jolting after six decades.

This drama must have been hugely controversial when it opened in 1947. America was in a period of emotional schizophrenia with World War II still fresh in everyone's hearts and minds. Many enlisted men were still missing in action. People were attempting to recover their civilian lives while also mourning their losses. Miller's first hit play tapped into the disillusionment of this postwar period. There was especially strong resentment aimed at civilian industrialists who'd profited by supplying the war effort.

The opening sequence seems like a Norman Rockwell magazine cover from the 1940s. We see a secluded garden and a cozy back porch full of wicker furniture. The sun shines brightly on this peaceful Sunday morning as neighbors roam back and forth across the yard. Everyone seems to be talking about money.

There is much more going on beneath the surface, of course. Miller's play examines whether a family can survive the very secrets that hold it together.

Director David Mink has molded his solid cast into a formidable force.

Lanny Lutz is on-the-money as hearty family man Joe Keller, owner of a small airplane parts factory in his early 60s who, like so many others during wartime, thrived as a result of lucrative contracts from the government. Joe, facing a tight deadline from the War Department, had allowed a batch of defective engine cylinders to be shipped to the Air Force, knowing they might endanger the lives of the pilots. Though he denied any responsibility after 21 young men perished and was acquitted for lack of evidence, his partner was imprisoned.

We easily identify with Joe Keller. He's not shifty and evil. He's like someone's stern but loving uncle who had too relentlessly pursued wealth for his family. He justifies his behavior with his Depression survivor's vision of a dog-eat-dog world. Lutz is chilling as this ordinary man begins to unravel before our eyes. We pity good old Joe yet he also makes us squirm with a sense of dread as the play builds to its explosive climax. Perhaps we're looking at ourselves.

The Kellers sent two sons off to war. Larry has been officially designated as "missing in action" for three years and is presumed dead in the Pacific by everyone but his mother, who desperately and irrationally awaits his return. Patrice Egleston brings much intensity to the role of the bossy yet fiercely protective wife and mother who is the emotional core of the play. The wounds of this deeply suffering woman are reopened when her lost son's former fiancée seems to find comfort in the arms of his surviving brother.

Kevin Bry, playing the heroic son who came home from the war, brings a relaxed, natural quality to his portrayal of this honest, decent guy who's now grown restless and resentful. Bry brings a perfect blend of strength and tenderness to the role.

The lovely Annie Rubino is charming yet determined as missing brother Larry's sweetheart who is also the daughter of Joe's imprisoned business partner. Her very presence in the Keller home escalates tension within the family. Then her brother shows up, boiling with rage at Joe. This angry veteran is well played by Billy Simmons.

Greg Kolack is perfect as the disillusioned doctor and next-door neighbor who seems to be the playwright's mouthpiece, articulating Miller's theme that moral compromise is the American way.

The doctor's cynical wife, played by Franette Liebow, provides sassy comic relief.

The simple yet effective set was designed by Sarah Seaman. Robert W. Behr is the stage manager.

All My Sons was attacked by the political right as a smear on American capitalism when it first opened in 1947. Veterans' organizations labeled the play "Communist propaganda." Miller ultimately had to defend his work before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

The issues of social responsibility, corporate greed and dishonesty in business still resonate strongly. Money-driven America increasingly seems to link wealth with self-worth. Miller's themes, as well as the ever conflicted father-son relationship, would resurface again soon in his most famous work, Death of a Salesman.

A woman with a blanket-full of grade school girls enjoyed a picnic on the grass near me while I watched the play. I cringed when I first noticed them, mistakenly assuming the children might quickly grow bored and restless. But they seemed to be drawn into the gripping, well-staged modern morality play.

My only quibble with this fine production is its now antique three-act structure. Since the play is only two hours long, perhaps the second 10-minute intermission might have been eliminated.

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