All My Sons: A Review

All My Sons, now at the American Airlines Theatre, was Arthur Miller’s first commercial success in 1947, two years before Death of a Salesman. It’s a tragedy, but a more classic one than his later hit, which was a memory play and showed Willy Loman already starting to fall apart.  In All My Sons all the action takes place within 24 hours, and the downfall of the protagonist stems from a tragic flaw from years before.

It tells the story of Joe Keller, the 60-ish owner of a Midwestern manufacturing plant which had turned out defective airplane parts during World War II that caused the deaths of 21 pilots. By passing the blame onto his partner, he has avoided prison and resumed a successful business  career, while his partner remains the incarcerated fall guy.

Joe had two sons. The younger one, Chris, is a disillusioned veteran now working for his father. The older one, Larry, was a pilot but has been missing in action for more than three years. His mother, Kate, refuses to give up hope that he might be alive, while Chris is ready to move on and has invited Larry’s fiancée, Ann, for a visit, in hopes that he might marry her.

To some extent, Joe Keller and Willy Loman are both victims of the American Dream, but at different levels. Joe is the self-made man, while Willy is struggling to keep up. Joe can’t see the amorality in his complicity for the death of the pilots. What is more important, the national good or staying in business to provide for his family? It’s a resonant question, in light of the recent Boeing Air Max crashes, and in Joe Keller’s case, his realization that the pilots were “all my sons” has tragic consequences.   

There are implications for the other characters as well.  Mother Kate has lived in denial for years because she needs Larry to be alive to assuage her husband’s guilt. And Chris, who has a form of survivor’s guilt and PTSD, needs to think that his father’s success isn’t due to blood money.  

The relationships among those three – Joe, Kate, and Chris – are essential to the play, and the performances heighten the sense of tragedy in this production, under the sure-handed direction of Jack O’Brien (who also directed at 1987 TV movie). Tracy Letts, who was a formidable George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf on Broadway a few years ago, captures Joe’s swaggering confidence until his fear betrays a hair-trigger temper. Annette Bening, eschewing all movie actress glamor, is pitch-perfect as an aging mid-century wife and mother, warm-hearted even as she’s mindful of the risks. And Benjamin Walker, who won raves in American Psycho, digs deep for Chris’s rage when he learns the truth about his father.

The effective supporting cast includes Francesca Carpanini as Ann and Hampton Fluker as her brother, who comes to set the record straight about Joe’s treatment of their father.  Special mention to Michael Hayden as the Kellers’ neighbor Frank, a struggling doctor with dreams of his own. The American Dream is conveyed in Douglas W. Schmidt’s set design of the Kellers’ backyard: welcoming but not too fancy, complete with a wisteria-draped arbor and the house next door. It is a reminder that the Kellers’ universe extends beyond their home to other people.  And so it should be with tragedy.

Cynthia Cochrane