The American Scream: Arthur Miller's "All My Sons" at The Purple Rose Theatre
Written and taking place in 1947, Arthur Miller’s All My Sons is steeped in the emotional fallout of World War II. One might question the relevance of mounting a new production of the show today: What remains to be gleaned from this 70-plus-year-old work? However, Miller’s observations on the nature of generational sin remain as shattering and relevant as ever -- particularly when staged with the intelligence and sensitivity of The Purple Rose Theatre Company’s new production, running through June 1.
All My Sons takes place on the Keller family’s front lawn in Kokomo, Indiana, lovingly recreated with an artificial lawn, antique furniture, and a rope swing hanging from the rafters of The Purple Rose’s intimate space. Kate (Michelle Mountain) has spent three years in denial since her son Larry, a pilot, went missing in action during World War II. Her husband Joe (Richard McWilliams) and son Chris (Ryan Black) have long accepted Larry’s death and grudgingly tolerated Kate’s insistence on his survival. But their tenuous existence is upended by the arrival of Larry’s ex-girlfriend Ann (Caitlin Cavannaugh), whom Chris has secretly planned to marry after carrying on a romantic correspondence with her.
The plot thickens as details arise about Joe’s business partnership with Ann’s father, Steve, who went to prison for knowingly selling defective aircraft to the Air Force. Joe has maintained his innocence in that situation in the intervening years and has gotten off scot-free. But as damning new information comes to light, the fragile assumptions on which all the characters have built their lives threaten to crumble.
The play’s character-driven emotional powder keg requires some powerhouse performers, and The Purple Rose’s production has them in spades. McWilliams beautifully portrays the tightly coiled anxiety and guilt behind Joe’s cheery exterior. It’s fascinating to watch his nonverbal reactions, the muscles of his jaw working silently as he listens to Mountain’s Kate. She is similarly excellent, portraying a character who at first seems tragically deluded but eventually reveals a deeper and darker resolve. As the cast took its bows opening night, there were still tears on Mountain’s cheeks -- and in the eyes of Black, whose performance also achieves unexpected depth by the end.
Director (and Purple Rose artistic director) Guy Sanville makes innovative and effective choices in staging the play. The most attention-grabbing is a wordless, impressionistic opening scene that engages all the cast in a sort of live sound painting representing the open wound of Larry’s death. It leaves an inexorable impression of the raw emotion underlying the family’s seemingly pleasant existence and adds a very distinctive twist to an oft-performed classic. Sanville also makes excellent use of the small set, blocking his actors in a lively way that clearly emphasizes the characters’ shifting interpersonal dynamics. He and his cast have also drawn out the ample wit in Miller’s writing. There are numerous laughs in the first act, though they don’t undercut the overall emotional impact.
A few of Sanville’s touches skew toward the melodramatic. Characters crumple dramatically to the ground multiple times, and a couple of musical cues seemingly seek to make a more obvious point than the already impactful material calls for.
Overall, though, The Purple Rose’s production is deeply affecting and thought-provoking. Watching it, I was reminded of another recent work that on the surface seems like it couldn’t be more different from All My Sons: Jordan Peele’s film Us. But just as Us reckons with the violence we commit to reach a certain station in life, so did Miller reckon with the villainous choices made, the lies told, to pursue the American dream. Though his play is set in the context of forging an uncertain path ahead from one of America’s greatest historical conflicts, it remains relevant to a different age and a different set of sins.
Patrick Dunn is the managing editor of Concentrate and an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.
"All My Sons" is at The Purple Rose Theatre, 137 Park St., Chelsea, through June 1. Visit purplerosetheatre.org for tickets, showtimes, and more info.