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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