RIDGEFIELD — A high school football injury kept Arthur Miller out of the draft during World War II. Nevertheless, the would-be playwright, who had graduated from the University of Michigan in 1938, served the war effort by working in the Brooklyn Navy Yard and writing scripts for patriotic movies.
In 1947 he had his second play produced on Broadway. The first had flopped, a year earlier, closing after four performances. The second, All My Sons — currently in production at Ridgefield Theatre Barn — would run for nearly 400, and garnered a collection of prizes including the New York Drama Critics Circle Award (beating out Eugene O’Neill’s Iceman) as well as Tony Awards for Best Author and Best Director, and so a remarkable career was launched.
It was a strange play for its time. In 1947 the country was flush with the heady optimism that came with the end of the War. The GI Bill and cheap mortgages for veterans meant that a whole generation could look forward to a standard of living their parents had only dreamed of.
The Depression was a thing of the past. Defense plants which had turned out trucks, tanks, ships and planes were retooled to provide a shower of consumer appliances. The American Dream had never seemed more attainable. And yet here was Miller writing a play that was attacking the very essence of that dream…
Profiteering is an ugly side of every war. The chance to increase wealth by cutting corners and supplying shoddy or defective equipment is a temptation that exists as much today as it did in 1943. And when the American Dream is narrowly interpreted in terms of getting rich, people begin to lose their moral compass.
Money making businesses are treated as sacred enterprises, shrugging off their impact on health, safety or the environment. For many soldiers returning from combat where they were supposedly defending “The Dream” — and where the prevailing values were loyalty, patriotism, and sacrifice — this materialistic focus is repellent. In Miller’s play, the joy of a young infantry officer’s return home is upended by an ugly secret.
All My Sons was inspired by a news clipping Miller's mother-in-law gave him, describing how some military inspectors were bribed to accept defective airplane engine parts from an Ohio factory, resulting in the deaths of three pilots. An investigation by a Senate committee led to the arrest of three Army-Air Force officers, who were tried and convicted.
In the backstory of Miller’s play, after 21 pilots died as a result of a shipment of cracked cylinder heads, the two partners who owned the plant were arrested. One partner, Steve Deever, was found guilty, sent to prison, and shunned by his children, who moved away. The other, his friend and neighbor, Joe Keller, was exonerated because he was home sick on the day Deever decided to disguise the defects with welds and ship them off to be used.
Set in 1946, events and revelations unfold with the inevitability of a Greek tragedy. The Kellers’ older son, Larry, a pilot, has been missing in action for three years. Their younger son, Chris, has come home safely from the war and is in love with Larry’s sweetheart, Annie, who happens to be the daughter of the imprisoned partner. Chris wants to marry her, but his mother Kate is dead set against that idea, because she still clings to the unrealistic hope that Larry is still alive, and will return home.
Like a Greek chorus, various neighbors move in and out of the Kellers’ backyard where the play is set. Ostensibly there just to greet Chris and Annie, but they start to drop ominous hints of underlying corruption. Chris, who idolizes his self-made father, begins to realize that people on the block believe that Joe Keller was as guilty as his partner. Annie realizes that there is a connection between Kate’s insistence that Larry cannot be dead, and her fear that his death was punishment for Joe’s crime.
Joe tries to explain that everything he did was solely for love of his family, and from a desire to build something to give to his son. Chris, profoundly affected by his own wartime experiences, is repelled by what he sees as the crass materialism in civilian life.
If the American dream is about making a lot of money, he doesn’t want any part of it. And if his father bears any responsibility for the deaths of all those young men, he is horrified. Once the truth begins to come out, we know things are going to end badly.
This is a long and complex play, with a large cast.
Will Jeffries is bluff and hearty as Joe. As his wife Kate, Nancy Sinacori is stubbornly insistent in her denial of the facts.
Eric Schuster is both shy and tormented by turns as their son Chris. Diana Waller smiles bravely as Annie, who stands up to her potential in-laws.
Stephen Ross is long suffering and philosophical as the neighborhood doctor, who, an idealist like Chris, would rather be spending his life in medical research, against the wishes of his manipulative wife, played by Paulette Layton. Every other word out of her mouth is “dear” or “darling,” but her defensive claws are always there.
Chris Luongo is convincing as Ann’s brother, George, who has returned from the war to search for the truth about their father’s imprisonment.
Alexis M. Vournazos is breezily cheerful as Frank Lubey, who managed to avoid the draft and marry George’s girlfriend at the same time. Now he supports Kate’s fantasy by feeding her horoscopes which supposedly “prove” that Larry is still alive. Robyn Mortiboys does well as his wife, Lydia.
Finally, young Gabriel Gordon acquits himself nicely in the part of a neighborhood kid who tags after Joe Keller.
As a playwright, Miller worked to impose classical form on recognizably realistic settings. In this case it is an Ohio small town right out of a Norman Rockwell illustration. In this Ridgefield production, the emphasis on getting the verisimilitude of details right seems to overwhelm the moral unity of the tragedy. In other words, the trees tend to be so interesting that we might actually miss the forest.
However, the Theatre Barn is definitely to be commended for attempting such an ambitious project, and if you are a fan of Arthur Miller, then this is well worth seeing.
(Performances continue Friday and Saturday evenings, and Sunday afternoons, until March 23.
Call 203-431-9850 or visit www.RidgefieldTheaterBarn.org for curtain and ticket details, and other information.)