All My Sons - Praxis Stage
All My Sons – Praxis Stage
Review by James Wilkinson
All My Sons is produced by Praxis Stage. Written by Arthur Miller. Directed by Joe Juknievich. Assistant Director/Stage Manager: Isabelle Beagen. Costume Design: Maureen Festa. Sound Design: Francis avier Norton. Movement/Intimacy/Violence Director: Kayleigh Kane.
It feels like Arthur Miller should be having more of a moment in theatrical circles than he currently is. Looking at his best work, you can see him wrestling with many of the ideas bouncing around in our contemporary political climate. What is America? What do we owe each other? How do the darker sides of capitalism affect the family unit? The individual? From the start of his career, Miller seemed to be taking the baton from Ibsen and using a theatrical framework to examine the relationship between the individual and society. One of Miller’s early works was even an English-adaptation of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, a play that looks at the cost a man is willing to pay for speaking truth against the wishes of the people around him. Earlier this year, I decided to acquaint myself with more of Miller’s work and it was fascinating to find specific lines and scenes in those old plays that spoke to the current moment. It’s a sign of either an especially prescient writer or a stunted society that didn’t learn its lesson when the work was staged the first time around.
The Boston-based theatre company, Praxis Stage, is looking to tap into that conversation Miller was having with its new production of All My Sons. The piece was Miller’s second play and his first hit, the one that established him as a new voice in American theatre. Originally staged as a naturalistic drama, in the hands of Praxis’ creative team, the piece plays out as something much more mythic, as though we’re watching the American dream crumble in our hands as it does for the characters on stage. Perhaps it’s the yellowing wicker furniture on the stage. Or it’s the flat white picket fence. But as the lights come up and the characters of this world greet each other in cheery voices, something doesn’t seem quite right. There’s a rot in front of us that no one is commenting on. Or maybe they’re just not looking for it.
Taking place a few years after the conclusion of World War II, All My Sons is the story of the Keller family. Patriarch and Matriarch, Joe and Kate, used to have two sons, Larry and Chris. Now, they only have Chris. It’s been years since Larry’s disappearance during the war, but Kate has a tight grip on the hope that one day he’ll return. Chris, however, is looking to move on and marry Ann, the woman that was set to wed his brother before Larry’s disappearance. It’s an arrangement that Kate is dead set against as it would mean acknowledging that her son is never coming back. Adding to the complications is Ann’s unseen father who used to be in business with Joe. During the war the two men were arrested for knowingly selling faulty airplane parts to the military. A decision that resulted in a number of deaths. Joe pinned the blame on his partner and was acquitted. Ann’s father now sits in prison, shunned by the family for what they see as his moral failings. Over the course of a single day, a number of long buried secrets will out, pushing the characters toward tragedy.
This all sounds like the set-up of a soap opera, but Miller is able to inject the tale with the operatic energy of a Greek tragedy. And just like in those Greek tragedies, what we’re watching is the story of how personal choices become larger political effects. I think that one of the strengths of Praxis’ production is the way it seems to shrink its focus down to the family at the center of the story. The set of the Keller backyard looks more like a child’s diorama than a family home. Despite the fact that neighbors keep entering and exiting the scene, it feels as though the world of the play ends at the lip of the stage. During a night scene, we don’t even hear the crickets from the yard next door.
Director Joe Juknievich gives the play a staging that constantly keeps the characters in motion. Given the strict barriers of the playing space, over time it creates the sense that our four main leads are trapped with each other, unable to break away from what’s coming. Take one moment in Act Two when Ann’s brother, George, comes to collect her. He wants her to leave, Kate wants her to leave and Chris wants her to stay. Director Juknievich stages the moment with Kate, Chris and George in a line, heads turned towards Ann. The simple movement yanks the audience’s eye towards Ann as she announces that she wants to stay and gives the decision added dramatic weight.
Given that so much of the play’s text is concerned with the sins of the father, I could very easily see a production putting all of its focus on the story of Joe. But another strength of Praxis’ production is how it recognizes that Kate is the beating heart of the story. Here, it shines. Sharon Mason gives an absolutely electric performance as the Keller matriarch. There’s something in her eyes, something in her voice, a drive that pulls the play along. Each time she steps on stage, the world of the play snaps into place. I was also impressed by Dominic Carter who brings a similar electricity to his scenes as Ann’s brother, George. In fact, much of the supporting cast is able to find and bring out hidden pockets of emotion in characters that are only seen for a moment or two.
The production team has also decided to cast the play color-consciously by making Ann and George Deaver African-American and it leads to at least one really interesting scene in Act Two that I think is worth discussing. George has just come from visiting his father, convinced that Joe alone is responsible for the faulty air plane parts. Full of anger at the Keller clan, he is determined to expose the truth and take Ann away. Just as he is about to do so, Kate walks out and begins mothering him in a way that takes away his anger. Soon the entire group is gently encouraging him to ignore what his father told him and go out with them. With a white actor this scene would just be a change to diffuse the dramatic tension for a moment. But here, watching a group of white characters tell a black one to essentially “calm down and play along” gives the moment an eerie edge, like a lost scene from Get Out. It’s a good example using race to add layers to an older text.
The experience of watching All My Sons is akin to watching the mechanisms of a grandfather clock running. Even when some plot developments appear a bit forced or convenient, there’s something about the way that Miller sets up and knocks down his pins that fits together and runs perfectly. There are some scenes in Praxis Stage’s production that don’t quite work or perhaps don’t have the emotional resonance that they could. But the production manages to hit enough of the scenes with just the right operatic weight that it doesn’t matter. By the end, when Daniel Boudreau as Joe’s baritone voice wrings out the final lines of the play, you’re emotionally shook. The story of this small family has a lot to say about America. Come take a look.
All My Sons is produced by Praxis Stage at Chelsea Theatre Works October 11-27, 2018.
For tickets and more information, visit their website: www.praxisstage.com