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In ‘All My Sons,’ guilt and denial over wartime profits and losses

John Judd (from left), Heidi Kettenring, Kate Collins and Timothy Edward Kane in the Court Theatre production of Arthur Miller's "All My Sons." | Michael Brosilow photo

Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons,” now in a blistering revival at Court Theatre, arrived on Broadway in 1947 — a moment in this country’s history often viewed as the apex of “the American century.” It was a time of triumph over the forces of evil in World War II, of pride in the rebuilding of Europe by way of the Marshall Plan and the opportunity for higher education afforded to veterans by way of the GI Bill. It also signaled the arrival of a thriving economy finally liberated from the Great Depression and wartime sacrifices.

Highly recommended
When: Through Feb. 11
Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis
Tickets: $44 – $74
Info: (773) 753-4472;
Run time: 2 hours and 20 minutes with one intermission

John Judd (left) plays Joe Keller, with Timothy Edward Kane as his son, Chris, in the Court Theatre production of “All My Sons.” | Michael Brosilow photo

But Miller clearly was far less beguiled by this vision of a “golden age” than many — or at least he was determined to call attention to its dark, suppressed underbelly. Hellbent on piercing the conscience of his audience, he called them on the carpet for so quickly forgetting the psychic scars of the war, for the ease with which they just got on with business (with profits in large part the result of wartime industry). You might also say he sensed the dangers of what President Dwight D. Eisenhower would dub “the military-industrial complex” a good 14 years later.

Homing in on the personal manifestations of all these issues in this play (which preceded “Death of a Salesman” and “A View From the Bridge”), Miller made the cracks in the family emblematic of the breakdown of the larger society, and used all the compressed elements of Greek tragedy in the telling of his story. To be sure, Miller could be heavy-handed at times, coming precariously close to giving us a scolding morality play. But there is an undeniably feverish quality to it all that grabs hold, and it is to the great credit of director Charles Newell and his fervent, raw-nerved cast that they have wrestled so fearlessly with this bear of a play.

Miller’s story unfolds in August 1946, in the back yard of the Midwestern suburban home inhabited by the prosperous but deeply troubled Keller family. (Designer John Culbert’s fractured facade is a perfect metaphor here). At the head of the family is 60-year-old Joe Keller (John Judd, in the latest of his many masterful portraits of arrogant but broken men), who made a fortune manufacturing the parts for fighter planes during the war, and was accused, if subsequently exonerated, of knowingly shipping damaged engine cylinders to the U.S.military — an act that resulted in the deaths of 21 pilots.

Adding insult to injury is the fact that Joe found a way to blame his business partner and former neighbor, Steve Deever, for the crime, and Deever, now disgraced, broken and in prison, has been abandoned by both his daughter, Ann (Heidi Kettenring), and son, George (Dan Waller). What’s more, when push comes to shove, Joe falls back on that old canard that he “did it for his family.”

Every bit as damning is the fact that Joe and his wife, Kate (Kate Collins, in a relentless turn as a shattered yet shrewdly manipulative woman), sent two sons of their own into the war. Larry, the oldest, whose remains have never been recovered, is clearly dead, while Chris (Timothy Edward Kane in a beautifully anguished turn) works for his father, tries to be the model citizen and hopes to marry Ann, who had long been his brother’s girlfriend. Kate, half-mad as she insists Larry will return — yet also well aware of her husband’s deceptions — cannot sanction such a marriage, nor can George (with Waller a fine mixture of intensity and vulnerability). Throughout, Kettenring, like Kane, expertly juggles her many dramatically shifting loyalties.

Miller also suggests that the marriages of the Kellers’ younger neighbors are less than ideal in more mundane ways, with Jim Bayliss (Karl Hamilton), the womanizing doctor, acquiescing to the financial priorities of his wife, Sue (Johanna McKenzie Miller), and the quirky, childlike Lydia Lubey (Abby Pierce), already the mother of three, aching for George though married to Frank (Bradford Ryan Lund).

Guilt, denial, lies, greed, corruption, betrayal, divided loyalties, warped values, self-destruction. All are at work here. So is Charles Dickens’ reminder that “mankind” should be our business — something Joe Keller finally realizes when he sees that the soldiers he betrayed “were all my sons.”

Heidi Kettenring (left) plays Ann Deever, with Dan Waller as her brother, George, in “All My Sons,” at Court Theatre. | Michael Brosilow photo