Catey Sullivan has been writing about Chicago theater for more than 25 years. She is a contributing writer at Crain's Chicago, Chicago Magazine and the Chicago Sun-Times. She's been published in Playbill, Pioneer Press, the Chicago Tribune and numerous other outlets. She has an MFA from the University of Illinois.
Pictured: John Judd, Heidi Kettenring, Kate Collins, and Timothy Edward Kane. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
By Catey Sullivan
“All My Sons” has been around for 70 years. It’s one of those rock-solid, well-made American dramas that’s produced with a fair amount of regularity. Every part in it is pure red meat for actors. The setting is restricted to a backyard, so you can stage it even if your budget doesn’t allow for a set that’s more than a few chairs. It’s a familiar, reliable show. It is not generally the sort of show that sparks huge amounts of anticipatory excitement. Court Theatre’s revival is the opposite of familiar or reliable. It is extraordinary. Get excited. Get off the charts excited.
The production is one of roughly 300+ plays I’ve seen over the past two years. It is easily in the top three among all of those. Take in director Charles Newell’s staging of “All My Sons” and you will leave the theater feeling as if you have been blown to pieces and stitched back together – in the best possible way. It is cathartic, dynamic, urgent and, in terms of sheer storytelling, mesmerizing.
Arthur Miller’s tale of a family torn to pieces by World War II is at once deeply personal and sweeping in scope. In the tragedy of the Keller family, Newell shapes a story as specific as a perfectly aimed needle through the heart and as vast as the winds of fate. As in Greek tragedy, the Kellers are swept up in events they have no control over. They make choices, but they are also buffeted by torrential currents they had no hand in shaping and no means of combating.
The story begins shortly after the end of World War II. Patriarch Joe Keller (John Judd) has carved out a prosperous life for his family, which includes his doting wife Kate (Kate Collins) and their son Chris (Timothy Edward Kane). The couple’s other son, Larry was a pilot in the war, and has been MIA for three years. Chris and Joe accept that Larry is dead, but Kate insists he is alive and coming home. Her denial is delusional, an impregnable fortress of mental illness she barricades herself within.
But her refusal to face the truth is forced to confrontation when Chris falls in love with Larry’s former girlfriend, Ann Deever (Heidi Kettering). Ann and Chris want to marry; much of the first act deals with how they’ll break that news to Kate, and how she’ll take it.
But Miller’s exquisitely structured play has layers within layers – Kate’s heartbreaking, ruthless insistence that Larry is alive is just one. There is also Joe’s dark history. Twenty-one World War II pilots died because the Keller factory knowingly sent out cracked cylinder heads. Joe was jailed, but his conviction was eventually overturned. His business partner – Ann’s father – took the fall, and has been imprisoned for years.
Despite Joe’s exoneration, the small town neighborhood where the Kellers live hasn’t forgotten or forgiven what happened. Surfaces are neighborly. What lies beneath is a suck of hostility, suspicion and rage. The second half of “All My Sons” brings in Ann’s brother George (Dan Waller), and with him, revelations that no one will ever fully recover from.
That’s a whole lot of plot to squeeze in, especially in the hour-long first act where everything is laid out for the second act’s devastating climax. Miller is a master. The exposition never feels like anything other than purely spontaneous dialogue. Miller doesn’t tell or explain the story’s many intricate pieces. He makes you experience them. Every word and every movement deepens the characters and propels the plot toward its conclusion.
Anchored by Collins and Judd as Kate and Joe Keller, the cast is outstanding. Both Collins and Judd turn in towering performances. Each is called on to have a complete emotional implosion, and they pull it off without even a hint of a false note. When Joe and Kate’s hearts shatter, you will feel it in your own bones.
The supporting cast is equally fine. As Chris Keller, Kane captures both the giddy wonder of being in love and the tortured frustration of having that love wholly denied by his mother. Kettenring’s Ann Deever is a bundle of nerves and radiant happiness. She’s mourned and moved on from Larry with a completeness that isn’t fully understandable until the production’s final scene.
There is also an entire neighborhood of indelible souls that populate the stage. As an unhappy doctor and the wife whose pragmatism must offset her husband’s dreamy idealism, Karl Hamilton and Johanna McKenzie Miller are a grim study of a marriage with the passion long-since washed out of it. As a young couple overwhelmed by life with three babies (and the occasional malfunctioning appliance), Bradford Ryan Lund and Abby Pierce portray a husband and wife whose dreams have been subsumed by the chaos of daily life.
Finally, there’s Waller as George Deever. From the moment he enters — rail-thin, haggard and haunted — you can feel the tension start to ratchet up. It’s as if George has been worn down to a shadow of himself; whatever darkness is gnawing at his soul infects everyone in his orbit.
John Culbert’s scenic design shows a house literally torn asunder. Somehow, the effect isn’t heavy-handed or on-the-nose. It’s just one of the many elements that fuse together to make “All My Sons” unforgettable.
ALL MY SONS runs through February 11th. For more information visit www.CourtTheatre.org.