NEW YORK -- Current scandals stemming from a lack of ethics in the worlds of business, finance and politics give the revival of Arthur Miller's 'All My Sons' on Broadway a timelessness that it might not have otherwise.
The production, which opened Wednesday at the John Golden Theater with Miller in the audience, originated with the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, Conn. It is solid and effective, thanks to the vigorous direction of Arvin Brown and a fine cast headed by Richard Kiley, one of the theater's most versatile actors and singers.
'All My Sons,' which premiered in 1947, was Miller's first Broadway success, to be followed by his more poetic and memorable 'Death of a Salesman.' It is a play that wallows in moralizing and makes its point over and over again. Most of its turns of plot are contrived and the language is too high-flown for its characters.
Nevertheless, Miller was able to strike achord that echoes with resonance in today's world of ruthless profiteering.
Kiley plays the role of Joe Keller, a small-town manufacturer who knowingly sends flawed airplane cylinder heads to the Air Force during World War II, resulting in the death of 21 pilots. In his own mind, he is convinced he acted to satisfy government pressure rather than to pile up a fortune for the future of his two sons.
Tried with his partner for the crime, Keller manages to get off scott free by saddling the partner with full blame even though the partner's daughter is engaged to his elder son. Much of the play revolves around the refusal of Keller's wife to accept the death of this son in an air mishap in the Pacific, a coverup for her suspicion that he died as a result of his father's deception.
The action of the play deals with the return of the partner's daughter to marry Keller's younger son just before her father is due to be released from prison, perhaps to reopen the war profiteering case. Keller's secret guilt does come out along with the possibility that his elder son committed suicide as a result of newspaper accounts of the case.
Keller at last admits responsibility for his actions, nearly destroying his highly ethical younger son, then commits suicide in expiation.
It is an overly, sometimes unpleasantly melodramatic story but one that still works, just as Greek and Shakespearean tragedies still work as magnifications of humankind's fatal weaknesses.
Kiley is just right as a likable everyman, who puts his family before the concerns of the world, even a war that claims his son, and reads everything but the news in a newspaper. When finally forced to confess his crime against 'all my sons,' he is utterly pathetic in his remorse mixed with yet one last attempt to rationalize his actions.
James Sheridan is outstanding as the surviving son, Chris, providing his character a suppressed emotional intensity that is all the more explosive when released. As Ann, his luminous and pragmatic bride-to-be, Jayne Atkinson makes one of the season's most impressive Broadway debuts.
The rest of the actors are well cast, with the exception of Joyce Ebert in the important role of Keller's wife, Kate, a neurotic woman with maddeningly conflicting character traits. This is a role with depth, but all it gets is character acting from Ebert, who seems like a Neil Simon creation.
Hugh Landwehr's shingled house and garden set, lovingly lit by Ronald Wallace, reeks of Norman Rockwell's Middle America and is a pleasure to behold, even if it is a bit shabby for a successful businessman's home. Bill Walker's costumes mirror the period unerringly.
If you have never seen 'All My Sons' on stage or the 1948 movie made of it, here is a chance to see a watershed play that divides Miller's years as a playwright of promise from the years when he was indeed one of the major dramatic voices of our time.