Eugene Weekly : Theater : 6.3.10


War Comes Home 
All My Sons at the Very Little Theatre
by Suzi Steffen

One great actor can make a play. In the case of All My Sons, running now at the Very Little Theatre, Paul Rhoden takes an aimless pre-intermission cast and shakes them into a group that finishes with far more passion than they began.

Annie (Abigail Borkn), Kate (Nancy Boyett), Joe (Chris Pinlo) and Chris (Bruce McArthur). Photo by Rich Scheeland.

The 1947 Arthur Miller play unfolds grimly, though that’s not apparent from the relatively casual opening in which Joe Keller (Chris Pinto) sits outside reading the paper and his neighbor Dr. Bayliss (Tom Wilson) putts on the lawn. But the foundation of the Keller family has begun to crumble. That’s obvious not only from the dead tree lying across the stage, a tree they’d planted when older son Larry’s plane went missing in action during WWII, but from set designer Rich Scheeland’s tenuously constructed house, sketched in and barely there.

Younger son Chris (Bruce McArthur) also fought in the Pacific, losing many of his men in action. Chris wants to put the war behind him, put his brother out of his mind — he suggests several times that his grieving mother “forget Larry,” as if that were possible — and get on with life. His mother clings to the belief that her other son isn’t dead; Chris clings to the belief that he can defeat war ghosts.

Chris works for his father at the Keller factory and lives in his parents’ house, where their former neighbor Ann (Abigail Borkin) has come for a visit. Annie and Larry were once sweethearts, and the reason for her visit is transparent to the older Kellers. Kate Keller (Nancy Boyett) resents Annie’s presence and her plans for the future. 

Everyone on the block tries hard to make their lawns, houses, lives look normal, to hold together after a war that practically tore the world apart (though not the U.S., except for Pearl Harbor, in any material way). But war doesn’t work like that, and families don’t work like that either.

Before intermission, nothing in the pacing or the interactions quite work. Do Annie and Chris really care about each other? Is Kate truly in denial about Larry? Why is Joe always teasing with a neighborhood kid (Sydney Bowers) about jail? Even the usually strong Pinto and Mike Hawkins, playing a neighbor, wander the stage without motive or clarity, and Borkin and McArthur as Annie and Chris exhibit zero chemistry.

That all changes after intermission, partly because the action intensifies in the script and partly because Annie’s brother George (Rhoden) walks on stage. Rhoden performs angry and desperate, passionate and betrayed George with such conviction that he elicits corresponding reactions from the other actors. Suddenly, the stakes grow fearfully high. Even after Rhoden exits, his energy and George’s threat change everything. 

Now the pathos of Kate Keller grows clearer, and Boyett conveys Kate’s fraught, agonized attempts to hide even from herself her complicity with what’s essentially a war crime. For years, a bandage of lies and justifications has covered a festering wound uniting the Keller and Deever families, and when Chris looks directly at the horrid truth, its stench overwhelms everyone. 

The central figure of the play should be Joe Keller, and the program recognizes that by putting Pinto on the cover. His evations, misconceptions and terrible misreading of his sons and a world changed by the war prove both venal and tragic.

Miller wanted a hit, Patrick Torelle tells us in the director’s notes, and All My Sons succeeded beyond his expectations. Joe and Kate Keller serve as parallels to the good Germans who went along with what they shouldn’t have; Chris Keller, a person who sees the good in others and wants to live a decent, upright life, comes to understand how far his family’s rot has eaten away his center. The script’s not perfect — Annie has a major plot point hidden in her purse, for instance, and the final bit of action comes right out of a British detective novel of the 1930s — but Miller sure knows how to draw characters devoted to ideals both misguided and honorable. For the audience members who stay beyond the set-up, the story, actors and play pay off.

All My Sons runs through June 12 at the Very Little Theatre. Tix at 541-344-7751.