If anyone questions the inclusion of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” in South Coast Repertory’s American Classics series, Martin Benson’s penetrating production should dispel any doubts.
Benson’s staging of Miller’s first Broadway hit (1947) is simply stated yet intricately crafted--much like the play itself, a searing chronicle of a nuclear family’s realization that the larger human family also matters.
The key element that makes this production the best I’ve seen in Southern California--including two others in the last four years and a third at Los Angeles Theatre Center in the ‘80s--is the performance of Peter Michael Goetz as Joe Keller, the family man who was at first disgraced and then exonerated in a wartime scandal over the manufacture of cracked airplane parts that were responsible for downing 21 pilots.
Goetz has a rumbling voice that shoots through a theater with absolute authority. He quickly establishes how Joe talked his way to the top of his business. When he pleads for a degree of human understanding in the treatment of his still imprisoned ex-business partner, he raises his pitch on the word “human,” letting it linger in the air, so that Joe is unwittingly cutting through to the heart of his own problem--his failure to extend this sense of humanity to the unseen pilots who died. Goetz’s burly look and jovial bonhomie also help implant the image of a natural leader of men.
Because of the way Goetz looks and sounds, he feels no need to sweat or scream his way through the role. Joe’s anxiety over the situation in which he finds himself never seems greasily overdone in Goetz’s hands. His Joe is a master at hiding his inner turmoil. Even at the end, as he realizes what he must do next, he retains the same poker face that he must use when he’s playing cards with his neighbors. This makes his final act all the more shocking, though no less comprehensible.
Look at the photo of Goetz with the other actors in the program, and you can see the resemblance between him and Simon Billig, who plays Joe’s son Chris--it’s in the noses and the half-smiles. So when the younger Keller starts chewing up the older one, we get the sense that a deep genetic bond silently cracked along with those airplane parts.
Billig played the same role--the veteran who returns home to find civilian life petty in comparison to the common cause he was in during the war--at International City Theatre in Long Beach in 1997, and he clearly knows it backward and forward, yet there is no trace of been there, done that. Early in the play, he masterfully conveys the mix of shame and longing that Chris feels toward his dead brother’s girlfriend, and later he finds a balance between rage and grief in his confrontation with his father.
Linda Gehringer plays Kate Keller, the mother who refuses to accept that her missing-in-action son Larry is dead--because it means she would have to accept something awful about his father, too. This is one troubled woman, but Gehringer is careful not to paint her as completely unhinged and allows her moments of fevered charm as she tries to get what she wants.
Ann, the girlfriend who has moved from the dead brother to the living one, is also the daughter of Joe’s ex-partner, and Nancy Bell sorts out the character’s complicated feelings with precision. Darin Singleton is properly restless and disheveled as her jealous brother, and the two couples who live on each side of the Kellers are in expert hands, especially those of Sarah Brooke as the tart-tongued doctor’s wife.
The design elements are up to South Coast’s usual standards. Tony Fanning’s two-story house and rows of poplars convey the sense of suburban solidity that must be established in order to feel the pathos of the world that will subsequently crumble.
* “All My Sons,” South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Ends April 1. $26-$43. (714) 708-5555. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.
Peter Michael Goetz: Joe Keller
Linda Gehringer: Kate Keller
Simon Billig: Chris Keller
Nancy Bell: Ann Deever
Darin Singleton: George Deever
Tony Pasqualini: Dr. Jim Bayliss
Sarah Brooke: Sue Bayliss
James Nardini: Frank Lubey
Laura Hinsberger: Lydia Lubey
Gabe Wolpa, Mitchell Hutchinson: Bert
Written by Arthur Miller. Directed by Martin Benson. Set by Tony Fanning. Costumes by Alex Jaeger. Lighting by York Kennedy. Music and sound by Michael Roth. Wigs and hair by Carol F. Doran. Stage manager Scott Harrison.