Attempting to move forward while haunted by the past ultimately pushes the Keller household to the breaking point in Arthur Miller’s acclaimed 1947 drama All My Sons, commendably presented by the Dayton Theatre Guild.
Delicately helmed without a hint of melodrama by Debra Kent, this gripping, three-act tale spanning a period of less than 24 hours concerns betrayal, duty, responsibility, regret, and irreparable father-son dynamics, relatable themes Miller would expand upon two years later in his masterpiece Death of a Salesman. Joe, humble patriarch and longtime businessman, and his dutiful wife Kate, still reeling from and utterly consumed by the absence of their eldest son Larry who disappeared in action, await the arrival of Ann Deever, the girl next door from long ago presently pining for Joe and Kate’s youngest son Chris, a valiant serviceman now operating the family business. The notion of marriage is a refreshing plus for this family in dire need of good news, but an ominous cloud looms over them. After all, Joe knowingly shipped defective airplane parts from his factory to the military during World War II, causing the deaths of 21 pilots. He was exonerated but his business partner Steve Deever, Ann’s father, remains incarcerated. When Ann’s bitter brother George arrives for answers, the Kellers are forced to face the ugly truth and accept the brutal, tragic consequences.
Framed within Chris Harmon’s beautifully inviting backyard set and attractively costumed in period attire by Carol Finley, Kent’s cast brings fine vim and verve to Miller’s fantastically layered dialogue overall despite a crucial inconsistent link. As the terribly flawed Joe, David Williamson shrewdly navigates the tricky balancing act of appearing carefree while forever under suspicion. Although Williamson is pretty much happy-go-lucky for the majority of the play, he greatly unleashes Joe’s hard-nosed grit late in Act 2 when Joe defends his choices, including his love of family, opposite an angered Chris. As the charming, honorable Chris, Jeff Sams delivers one of his most emotional performances, wonderfully erupting in a sea of ferocity, pain, disbelief, and horror as the unimaginable becomes reality. Sams has so much fire in his eyes I truly believed Kate’s depiction of Chris’ duality: “In the war they say he was a killer. Here he was afraid of mice.” As Ann, the good-natured woman caught in the middle of brotherly strife, the luminous Kari Carter, looking runway-ready in Finley’s lovely costumes, supplies a beguiling femininity and a keen mediator sensibility as dysfunction threatens the pursuit of new love. The terrifically nuanced Mike Beerbower, determined to destroy but mindful of cordiality, brings pitch-perfect frustration and childlike awe to George’s prickly, tense reunion with the Kellers. Rick Flynn (Dr. Jim Bayless) and Adee McFarland (Sue Bayless) are credibly partnered. McFarland in particular excellently intimidates to the hilt opposite Carter when Sue scolds Ann about Chris’ behavior and admits she actually can’t stand living next to the Kellers. Who knew Miller laid the groundwork for Desperate Housewives? Todd Rohrer (horoscope-adoring Frank Lubey), Heather Atkinson (Frank’s sunny wife and George’s former flame Lydia), and spunky Noah Rutkowski (precocious neighbor kid Bert) are also enjoyable in featured roles. However, Rachel Oprea, a committed but miscast Kate, is out of her depth and doesn’t really settle into the complex magnitude of her role, which has greater significance here due to Kent’s decision to stage, in prologue and echoing the play’s exhilarating 2016 Stratford Festival production, the fierce storm that strikes the tree Kate planted to keep Larry’s memory alive. Kent tilts the play in Kate’s direction, but Oprea lacks variety, vitality and age-appropriate finesse, a surprising turn of events considering how much I’ve praised her versatility over the years. Regardless, as Kate says, “certain things have to be.”
Even so, accented by gently evocative lighting design by Tony Fende (notice Oprea bathed in blue moonlight in the final moments) and moody sound design by K.L. Storer, All My Sons is impactful theater. Miller places a stark mirror to humanity as he questions the true measure of a man living the American Dream.
All My Sons continues through Sept. 3 at the Dayton Theatre Guild, 430 Wayne Ave., Dayton. Performances are Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 5 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. Act One: 55 minutes; Act Two/Three: 70 minutes. Tickets are $20 for adults, $18 for seniors and $13 for students. For tickets or more information, call (937) 278-5993 or visit daytontheatreguild.org.