|Noel Desiato and Thomas Ovitt|
Ghosts take many forms. There are those bed-sheeted wraiths who wander the streets on Halloween seeking candy, and there are those who supposedly haunt castles or ancient houses where evil deeds have been done. But the ghosts that most of us confront are those that lurk in our minds, memories of misdeeds, dishonorable actions that, though repressed, never spoken of, denied, rattle their chains and cannot be exorcised. Such hauntings are the subject of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons,” which recently opened at TheatreWorks New Milford in a mostly gripping production under the balletic, sure-handed direction of Jane Farnol.
Miller, one of the great American playwrights of the twentieth century, was initially unsuccessful. His first play, “The Man Who Had All the Luck,” ran for a grand total of four days on Broadway. However, his second play, “All My Sons,” which opened in 1947, was a success, earning him a Tony. Although dealing with topical issues, this play, as well as many of his other successful plays – “Death of a Salesman,” “The Crucible,” “The Price” – never loses sight of the fact that it is in the family that “great issues” reverberate, that it is, inevitably, not concepts or philosophies that rise or fall, that suffer, it is people.
Set in 1947 in a middle-class American town, “All My Sons” introduces the audience to the Keller family and its neighbors and friends. There’s Joe Keller (Mark Feltch), the pater familias, a businessman who must gently deal with his wife, Kate (Noel Desiato), who is high-strung and clinging to the belief that their son, Larry, a pilot ostensibly lost in World War II, will somehow reappear. Their other son, Chris (Tommy Ovitt), actually made it through the war and now works with his father and has invited Ann Deever (Paige Gray) to visit them.
Ann’s arrival comes with a tangled web of associations. The Deevers once lived next door to the Kellers and Ann’s father, Steve, was once Joe’s business partner but was sent to prison for selling defective airplane parts – Joe was exonerated. Then there’s the fact that Ann was once Larry’s “girl” and they were expected to marry after the war.
Other neighbors often drop by – there’s Dr. Jim Bayliss (Jonathan Ross) and his somewhat disgruntled wife, Sue (Stacy-Lee Frome), and Frank Lubey (Rufus de Rham), an astrology enthusiast, and his wife Lydia (Meg Jones), who once was romantically inclined towards Ann’s brother, George (Deron Bayer), now a returned veteran who has become a lawyer.
It would appear to be a typical, post-war suburban semi-paradise, captured by the trim rear of the Keeler house and back yard, compliments of set designer Jim Hipp. But, of course, there are ghosts in this American garden of Eden, and the play consists of the gradual calling forth of these ghosts, a dramatic séance of sorts that will lead to more than mere eerie knocks on the wall and tentative table shakings.
I described Farnol’s directions as “balletic,” and that needs to be explained (I guess). A graduate of The Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, Farnol appears to be extremely sensitive to the “pictures” she creates in her blocking, none of which are static. If there’s more than one actor on the stage, if he or she makes a cross (a movement), many of the other actors will adjust their positions to create a new “scene,” a new balance that supports the dialogue that is about to be delivered and the tensions inherent. There are moments when there seems to be emotional distance between the characters and this is reflected in the blocking, and then there are moments when the distance is assaulted or destroyed and, again, the blocking supports and enhances what is occurring on stage. This subtle, chess-piece movement doesn’t call attention to itself and thus it is all the more effective.
If there’s one somewhat distracting note to the production, it’s the casting of Ovitt as Chris. It’s not that Ovitt doesn’t deliver – he’s especially effective in the play’s final moments – it’s just, well, Chris is supposed to be 32 years old, a former Army company commander, a seasoned veteran, and Ovitt simply doesn’t look the part. A recent graduate of Western Connecticut State University, he is fresh-faced and, like it or not, exudes a visual innocence that belies his character’s history.
However, there’s no miscasting involved in giving Desiato the nod to play the somewhat bedeviled Kate. In fact, although the play’s main focus is on the truth about the sale of the faulty airplane parts and how that bears on Joe Keller, it’s Desiato as Kate who draws the eye whenever she’s on stage. Her interpretation of Kate often suggests that her character just might explode into a million pieces at any moment. You believe that she believes that her dead son just might return, such is the strength of her performance. Desiato manages to convey mania as well as subtle moments of deep perception about human nature, no more so than in the final reveal that explains, amongst other things, why she has clung to her belief that her son will…must…return. It’s a mesmerizing performance.
Although set in the early post-war years, what the play deals with still seems topical, for beyond the specifics of the sale of faulty airplane parts it, like “The Death of a Salesman” and “The Crucible,” focuses on the “deals’ we make with ourselves to survive in a world that often demands we cut corners, embrace lies or succumb to the mob-psychology that blinds us to reality. These “deals” inevitably turn into the ghosts that haunt us and, more often than not, eventually force us to look into the mirror and acknowledge the phantom looking over our shoulder.
Written six decades ago, “All My Sons” still has the power to move and engage an audience, and TheatreWorks’ production by and large does that. The play’s title says it all, though its true meaning isn’t revealed until the final moments. That meaning continues to have relevance, for as John Donne famously wrote, “No man is an island”…what we do, the sins we commit, the falsehoods we embrace, take spectral form that haunt the lives of others.