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Sins of the father
Arthur Miller’s classic tragedy All My Sons at IPFW
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
Some of the meatiest and most resonant dramas in theater are about families with secrets, and in Arthur Miller’s American tragedy All My Sons, the secrets of the Keller family — especially patriarch Joe Keller — are corrosive and run deep.
In All My Sons, Joe Keller (played by Robert Phillips in IPFW’s production, which begins its run on November 11) is a thriving Midwestern businessman in 1947, who reveres family and profit above all else. Keller’s factory was responsible for sending defective airplane parts overseas, leading to the deaths of 21 American pilots during World War II. Keller, artfully denying any wrong doing, forced his partner to take the rap and go to prison for the crime. Now the jailed man’s daughter, Ann Deever (Kearstyn Keller) has returned to visit the Kellers on a Sunday morning in August.
Ann was once engaged to Joe’s younger son, Larry, a pilot who has gone missing during the war. Since then, she has been corresponding with Larry’s brother, Chris (Bob Ahlersmeyer). Having grown-up next door to each other, a new romance has bloomed between Chris and Ann that is not to the liking of Joe’s wife Kate (Kate Black) who refuses to concede the possibility that her son Larry is dead. “Everybody else has made peace with the fact that he’s gone, but she just can’t bring herself to let go of the possibility that he’s alive somewhere in the world,” Black says of Kate Keller. “Several times, she discusses the fact that the newspapers have been full of people returning after years longer than Larry has been gone. That continues to make her feel that there’s hope, and she’s not willing to let go of the possibility that he’s still alive.”
Black, who has been doing theater for 40 years, is one of a very small number of community actors in the class not from IPFW’s Department of Theater (Ahlsmeyer and Phillips, an IPFW faculty member, are the others). But like many of the students, this is her first Arthur Miller play, something she admits is kind of unusual. It’s Miller’s prominence in the American playwright canon that lead director John O’Connell (chair of IPFW’s Department of Theater) to choose the play for this season. “In their four years here, (students) should do a couple shows from the American canon,” O’Connell says. “Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams… Start with that, and if we’re going to do something from one of the great American playwrights, what play can you cast? All My Sons is probably the most accessible for our student body.”
Accessible as far as the age of many of the characters, of course, but accessible also in the play’s themes and motivations. The play takes place in 1947, and though O’Connell says the actors have had a little trouble pulling off some of the dialogue’s colloquialisms (“We don’t live in a world where people say ‘gee whiz’ anymore”), some of the issues in All My Sons seem especially timely — these days, no one is surprised some companies can make a lot of money off of war.
“I think we got mislead in English class in high school to think that themes are one word, that Hamlet, for example, is about ‘revenge,’” O’Connell says. “It’s not. It’s about what revenge does to people. And All My Sons is really about the hunger of war, because Joe Keller goes to an extreme to keep his shop open and protect his family.”
“(Keller) gives a speech where he says ‘if no one made any money in this war, then I won’t make any either. But trucks and parts were being shipped out of Detroit, and people were making money on that, and I had to protect my family’.”
The central drama of All My Sons is how the family reacts to the deaths of the 21 pilots as a result of defective parts made by Keller’s company. Keller himself uses all sorts of tactics to evade taking responsibility, and some of them O’Connell describes as “a little smarmy.” But overall, O’Connell says, Keller is a tragic figure in the classic sense. Keller may be lying or hiding a number of things, but when he claims that family is first, he’s telling the truth as he sees it. “His wife says at one point, ‘you can’t blame family on that’.” O’Connell explains. “But Joe is not blaming family. Family really is the most important thing to him, and it’s his perception of his duty to family, and his duty to the war effort, and his duty to America, that causes him to make a really bad decision and then hide it.”
O’Connell explains that Miller was one of a number of playwrights that helped usher in an era of “realism” in American theater. The set design by student Cami VanderHart reflects that realism — there’s nothing abstract or minimal about it, and the level of detail was a challenge. “We have a full-fledged, two story house on our stage, with real grass and real backyard furniture, so it’s quite an authentic set,” O’Connell says.
“Designing All My Sons showed me the level of detail required for a realistic production such as this,” says VanderHart. “Most of my previous designs were more abstract and had far less detailed elements. This show has detailing around the windows and doors as well as lattice and siding specific to an Arts & Crafts Bungalow style house.”
IPFW Department of Theatre presents All My Sons
Fridays Nov. 11, 18 at 8 PM
Thursday November 17 at 8 PM
Saturdays November 12, 19 at 8 PM
Nov. 20 at 2:00 PM
Sign language performance Sunday, Nov. 20, 2011
Williams Theatre – IPFW North Campus
2101 E. Coliseum Blvd
Fort Wayne, IN 46805
Admission for IPFW students with I.D. is free
$10 Groups of 10 or more
$5 Students 18 and under
$10 Other “college” students with ID
Children under 6 will not be admitted
Please arrive early. Latecomers will be seated at the discretion of management or at intermission.
The Schatzlein Box Office in the Rhinehart Music Center is open Monday – Friday, 12:30 – 6:30 pm from Sept. 1 – May 31.Patrons are encouraged to call in advance to reserve their tickets.
Box Office: 260-481-6555
For information call the Schatzlein Box Office at 260-481-6555 or ipfw.edu/theater