Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” depicted a working-class loser ground down by a rigged system. Miller’s previous play, “All My Sons,” showed us the equally tragic flip side in self-made factory owner Joe Keller, who successfully gamed that system — for a time. The corruption that brings Keller down erupts with a vengeance in Pacific Resident Theatre’s fierce revival.
During World War II, Joe’s Ohio factory was rocked by scandal over defective aircraft cylinder heads that led to the deaths of 21 pilots. His partner went to prison, but Joe (Richard Fancy) skated responsibility and now enjoys the fruits of postwar prosperity.
A striking departure from the affable charmer in many productions, Fancy’s caustic, scrappy Joe wears his street fighter heritage on his sleeve. Devotion to his family notwithstanding, Joe has reclaimed his social status through cunning and bullying. His strained conviviality is about as convincing as a jackal’s grin.
The interpretation is part of director Elina de Santos’ vision to present the play’s 1947 middle-class suburbia as a viper’s nest.
Joe’s wife, Kate (Terry Davis), gets what she wants through manipulation and guilt-tripping — tactics she deploys with no sugar coating when son Chris (Marc Valera) courts Annie (Amy-Helene Carlson), the girlfriend of his older brother who went missing in the war. Tightening the dramatic noose, Annie is also the daughter of the imprisoned partner who took the fall for Joe.
In this context, a merciless takedown of Annie by the Kellers’ steely, embittered neighbor (Tania Getty) is very much in keeping with local community standards — though she and her milquetoast husband (Jason Huber) display a level of self-knowledge otherwise in short supply.
In contrast, Kate has convinced herself that her missing son will return. Annie’s belief in her father’s guilt frees her to sever ties with him, while Chris naively believes in his father’s innocence. Joe justifies his craven self-preservation in the name of family duty. In Miller’s world, self-delusion born of psychological necessity is the foundation for the tragic explosions to follow.
As illusions shatter, the bare-knuckle confrontations are riveting in De Santos’ well-paced staging, which heightens the intensity but proves problematic for some aspects of the play.
The trade-off with having tensions seething so close to the surface is that there is no veneer of sociability to strip away. When Annie’s enraged brother (Scott Jackson) arrives with the intent to expose Joe’s guilt, he backs down with an admission that the Keller household was the warmest place he’d ever known — hard to believe when there’s no warmth in sight.
What comes through loud and clear is Miller’s genius for using our moral conscience to connect the structures of classical drama to everyday life. Character flaws lead Joe to fall short of the higher social values espoused by his son. In “The Crucible,” Miller explored the opposite scenario of personal integrity crushed by a tyrannical society; in “Death of a Salesman” the failure is on all sides. There in a nutshell is the wobbly moral compass that links Miller’s three greatest plays.
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When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, through Dec. 15. Dark in late November; see website for schedule.
Info: (310) 822-8392 or pacificresidenttheatre.com
Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes
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