Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

All My Sons
Court Theatre
Review by John Olson | Season Schedule


John Judd, Heidi Kettenring, Kate Collins, and
Timothy Edward Kane

Photo by Michael Brosilow
In the wake of Ivo van Hove's minimalist A View from the Bridge, a production that began in the U.K., travelled to New York where it won top Tony Awards, and earned raves in Chicago and Los Angeles, apparently it's not enough just to stage a play by the master of realism Arthur Miller in a realistic manner. For this staging of All My Sons at Chicago's Court Theatre, director Charles Newell has added a concept in which at the beginning and various other points in the play we see actors who are not in the scene, standing silently at the periphery of the main playing area.

The actors are those playing the neighbors and friends of the Kellers, the family whose family business was blamed for supplying the U.S. military with defective engines for fighter jets during World War II. Those who know the play will understand the point—the actions of one family (or one person) impact all in our community. Those who are new to All My Sons may find it distracting. (At one point, it's even unintentionally comic—when one character asks, "where's Jim Bayliss," while Jim is standing in full view on stage.)

So, to return to the original question, "is it necessary to impose a directorial concept on an Arthur Miller play," or more specifically, "did Newell need to do this?" No, certainly not with as fine a cast and performances as he has here. His symbolic blocking of putting offstage characters on stage doesn't mar the overall power of the acting or the worth of this production, but it doesn't add to it either. Miller is very explicit in his message in All My Sons that individual actions affect others and that we have a responsibility to our community as much as to ourselves and our families. I don't think it needs that additional visual reinforcement.

But enough on that. This exceptional cast is led by the powerful John Judd as Joe Keller, the factory owner who was accused and acquitted (on appeal) of manufacturing defective engines, but never really exonerated. Judd's Joe seems a bit broken and partially defeated at the outset. He's struggling to return to normalcy after the war, despite the wartime loss of his son Larry and the insistence of his wife Kate that Larry, who went MIA three years earlier, is still alive. Judd plays Joe as a wounded lion who turns ferocious when cornered.

Kate Collins's Kate Keller seems quite crazy at the outset, but with mood swings to rationality and back to insanity. It's an off-putting performance, but it does succeed in painting Kate as a controlling figure who may have unwittingly contributed to Joe's drive for financial success and security that resulted in his decision to ship defective engines. We very much get the sense that Kate's controlling nature is holding the family back from dealing with their tragedies and that she is complicit in their crimes.

Timothy Edward Kane is a suitably upright, morally grounded Chris Keller, the surviving son. His initial belief in and love for his parents is evident and Kane skillfully shows his descent into disillusionment as he learns of the failings. Judd, Collins and Kane hold nothing back as the drama winds to its final confrontations.

I would expect no less from these three actors, but the real revelation for me is Heidi Kettenring as Ann Deever, the former girl next door who was engaged to Larry and with whom Chris has been corresponding since Larry's death. Though Kettenring has done straight dramatic work, I knew her mostly from her turns as a musical theatre actress, where she's consistently strong in roles that don't require this sort of range. Her performance in All My Sons was for me the focal point of the story. Her Ann, whom Chris has invited to the Keller home with the intention of proposing marriage, is grounded, and kind but strong. Ann is really our surrogate. She has fewer illusions about the past and more readily accepts the truth, as she learns it, than do the Kellers. Ultimately, she is the one who will help the Kellers move on with what's left of their lives.

Dan Waller is Ann's brother George, who believes Joe to be the guilty party but is briefly convinced otherwise by his lifetime friends, the Kellers. Waller's George enters in a state that appears clinically anxious—having just met with his father in prison and travelling to the Keller home to stop Ann from agreeing to marry Chris. He struck me as over-the-top unstable, but his take does make it easier to believe the Kellers could manipulate him when they briefly convince him of Joe's innocence.

There's uniformly strong work from the rest of the cast. Karl Hamilton is Jim Bayliss, the family physician bored with his work and wanting something more fulfilling if less profitable. As Sue Bayliss, Johanna McKenzie Miller projects the necessary dark nuance of the wife who hopes he will keep making money. Bradford Ryan Lund captures the goofiness of the horoscope-obsessed neighbor Frank Lubey, while Abby Pierce is sweetly flirtatious as his wife who would rather be married to someone else. Charlie Herman and Gabe Korzatkowski alternate as the young neighbor boy Bert, a role some productions cut to avoid the special needs of hiring a child actor.

John Culbert's set is a series of three suggestive rather than realistic cut-out facades of the Keller home, and partial facades of the two next-door neighbors' homes. Seeing the neighboring homes as well as the Kellers' house, even though no action occurs in the flanking houses, is a subtle but effective way of reinforcing Miller's theme that we are all connected to each other. More effective and less distracting, I'd argue, than the business of having off-stage characters standing on stage.

One can't blame directors for wanting to dig just a bit deeper into classics like All My Sons. Through his takes on the characters, so effectively delivered by this exceptional cast, Newell does that. But more when they're talking rather than standing around.

All My Sons, through February 18, 2018, at the Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave., Chicago IL. For tickets and further information, visit www.courttheatre.org or call 773-753-4472.


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