Thursday, June 21, 2012

All My Sons: Actors as Acrobats

(reflection on a performance of Arthur Miller's play ALL MY SONS at The Walker School, Marietta, GA, on October 27, 2011)

The day after the performance of ALL MY SONS by high school students at the independent school where I teach, I heard a fellow teacher tell a cast member, "I don't 'enjoy' an Arthur Miller play, but I can appreciate it."   I know what he means, but I take issue with it.

Written in 1947, the play shows us men and women in the aftermath of the war, dealing with loss, and guilt.  There's Kate Keller (Rachel Novak), grieving over her son Larry, grasping at hopes that he might still be alive.  There's Chris (Justin Kasian), the young officer who lived to see most of his men sacrifice their own lives in their efforts to save each other, who now finds routine life to be a betrayal of that kind of generosity.  His father Joe (Kyle Rehl) owned a business that manufactured crucial equipment for fighting planes.  Now retired, he was tainted by a scandal when defective parts resulted in US planes crashing; his partner went to jail for knowingly approving the shipment.  That partner's son is George (Patrick McPherson), ashamed of his father's fall. 

The catalyst for the action is a visit to the Keller home by Ann (Olivia Breton), George's sister and the late brother's fiancee.   Why is she visiting?   Does Chris love his older brother's fiancee?   The mother, clinging to the idea that her son still lives, will not tolerate that thought. Can she be made to see reality?  

The enjoyment of the evening comes from watching actors tip-toe on a fragile bridge of light dialogue over dangerous water.  Undercurrents are close to the surface of polite conversation, and tension grows with our awareness of what's concealed in the depths.    My favorite moment this way may have been the split-second when the mother steps out onto the porch, interrupting a confrontation among the other characters.   George has been on the verge of attack, revealing a fact that will change everything; but, face still flushed with anger, he turns a polite smile to the mother and to answer small talk with small talk, while the other characters watch with trepidation, and follow his lead.

When the actors are so focused on character as these young actors were, it's not depressing; it's exhilarating, like watching acrobats at Cirque du Soleil!

This was my second time with ALL MY SONS, and I came away feeling about the script as I had the first time (a production at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival over a decade ago):  It's one of the best plays I've ever seen, until the last thirty minutes, when the characters become mouthpieces for a bitter Marxist critique of America.   
Still, the good will generated by the actors in Miller's dialogue for the first couple hours carries the day.

The Cast:  Kyle Rehl (Joe), Rachel Novak (Kate), Justin Kasian (Chris), Olivia Breton (Ann), Patrick McPherson (George), Myles Haslam (Jim), Casey Schreiner (Sue), Coleman Hedden (Frank), Liane Houde (Lydia), Sam Lowry (Bert).  Directed by Katie Arjona.  See a student-produced trailer.

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