“All My Sons” by ACTC at Vanguard

By Tom Titus

“Death of a Salesman” notwithstanding, there is a wholly legitimate argument to be made for “All My Sons” to be recognized as Arthur Miller’s finest literary achievement – particularly when produced as brilliantly as the current revival by the American Coast Theater Company at Costa Mesa’s Vanguard University.

Had this postwar drama been unsuccessful, following Miller’s failed first effort, there probably would have been no “Salesman” — or “A View From the Bridge” or “The Price,” for that matter. Thankfully, audiences in 1947,  just two years after World War II ended, embraced this powerful and emotionally involving drama.

Incisively directed by Kevin Slay, “All My Sons” begins as a peaceful, happy occasion in the back yard of munitions factory owner Joe Keller, then gradually deepens into accusation, confrontation and, ultimately, tragedy. It’s a challenging project for the ACTC actors, who attack the play like hungry wolves, baring their emotional teeth.

There are at least four dynamic performances here, with center stage skillfully occupied by Paul Eggington as Joe, who was accused but exonerated of supplying faulty cylinder heads to the Army Air Force which resulted in 22 pilots’ deaths. His partner was convicted and remains incarcerated.

Eggington maintains his forced upbeat attitude throughout most of the production, but turns sullen and defensive as the truth about his involvement surfaces. His mood swings are rampant, yet he remains adamant about his innocence until the ultimate soul-shattering confrontation. And as if this assignment weren’t enough, Eggington also designed the fine-looking set as the show’s technical director.

As his perilously moody wife Kate — who clings to the belief that one of her sons, missing in action for three years, ultimately will return – Susan K. Berkompas (the founding mother of ACTC) brings a scary quality of desperation to her excellent performance.  Upon learning that her surviving son intends to marry the MIA son’s girlfriend, her surface calm erupts into fear and panic.

The show’s finest performance, however, comes from James McHale as Chris Keller, who survived the war and has fallen in love with Ann — who was not only his missing brother Larry’s intended bride but is the daughter of Joe’s imprisoned partner. McHale exudes strength and conviction in large quantities, heightened immeasurably with the news of his beloved father’s profit-motivated culpability.

Kristi Pruett displays both sweetness and determination as Ann, who’s long since given up on the idea of Larry’s coming home and who emphatically returns Chris’ feelings for her. Pruett’s introduction of a damning letter late in the play is a devastating moment for all concerned.

Her brother George – who, like Ann, had severed all communication with their father until that particular day – is splendidly interpreted by Rene Scheys as a wounded warrior bearing ill will toward Joe and, by extension, his family. Scheys excels at squelching his inner demons out of respect for Kate in a tension-laced family get-together.

Supporting performances also are quite effective. Dwayne Strivens is solid as the Kellers’ doctor neighbor, while Deborah Marley breaks tensions as his chatty wife. Brandon Arias is fine as a goofy astrology buff, backed up by Anna De La Cour as his spouse, while young Max Salinger adds a light tough as the neighborhood kid who worships Joe as a “sheriff.”

“All My Sons” is a superb study in emotional interaction under nearly the worst possible circumstances – and (in this corner anyway) the finest, most viscerally affecting drama ever conceived by the late, great Arthur Miller. Its production by ACTC at Vanguard’s Lyceum Theater is a masterful revival.

Performances continue through June 7 with curtain Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm. And Sundays at 2 p.m. Reservations and ticket information are available at (714) 619-6424 or online at http://www.ACTCtickets.com.

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The Women

“The Women” Overstay Their Welcome

By Tom Titus

Whatever you may think of “The Women,” Claire Booth Luce’s 1936 all-female ensemble comedy, you must admit it has staying power. After being filmed in 1939, it was revived twice on Broadway in 1973 and 2001 before another movie version in 2008.

Currently, the show is being staged at the Westminster Community Theater in a three-hour production that’s about an hour too long. There are gems to be mined in this vintage comedy, but finding them requires some time-consuming effort.

Fidelity, or lack of it, is the overall theme of this chat fest in which 16 actresses, some playing multiple roles, dissect their husbands (who aren’t seen), their rivals and each other. Societal references are, quite naturally, from the mid-1930s, and any modernization would be verboten.

The central figure is one Mary Haines (Jamie Sowers), who appears to be ensconced in a perfect marriage – until her friends’ claws come out and expose the fact that Mary’s hubby has a wandering eye. As time goes on (and on), other ladies in the company find their marriages crumbling as well.

The role of Mary is written as bland on bland, and Sowers accentuates it with her one-dimensional portrayal. Her best moments are in loving scenes with her sweet little daughter (Jacquelyn Desloge), but she manages to thrust an exclamation point on her character before the final fadeout.

Earning top honors for a lusty, razor-witted performance is Elizabeth Desloge, who not only one-ups her comrades verbally but, in one instance, physically as well in a rousing cat fight. Desloge plays Sylvia, one of Mary’s close friends, who delights in upsetting marital applecarts until her own is dislodged.

As the feline vixen who uncouples both Mary and Sylvia, Tawney Lewis also is excellent, though her actions as a black woman in the mid-Thirties are somewhat questionable.  Megan Tice is a bright spot as the young bride Peggy.

Also impressive are Monica Valladares as another bridge-playing buddy who’s perennially pregnant and Elaine Domino as an aging countess (by marriage) turned into a cowgirl (by circumstance).

Two veteran actresses with hundreds of stage credits between them – Laurie Robbins and Beth Titus – draw supernumerary duty with three roles apiece, heightening the comedy factor. Toni Beckman is fine as Mary’s placid mother, while Tanya Court doubles neatly as a titled model and a femme fatale.

Directed by Brandon Ferruccio, who also designed the multi-set show,  “The Women” functions as a theater history lesson and an opportunity for a number of actresses to show their stuff. They’d show it to greater advantage had the script been excised by about one-third.

“The Women” plays weekends through May 31 with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. at the Westminster Community Theater, 7272 Maple St., Westminster. Call (714) 893-8626) for further information and reservations.

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