DMT’s ‘All My Sons’ finds hope within tragedy

During World War II, Franklin Delano Roosevelt built his legacy on some of the greatest addresses to the American public in history. Whether it was his legendary fireside chats, his quotes on Pearl Harbor as a “day of infamy,” and of course, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

But as it relates to WWII, one of the most pointed quotes was addressed to those who made money off of the misfortunes of others. Roosevelt believed that war should always be a necessity, not a fiscal opportunity. To that end, he said this – “I don’t want to see a single war millionaire created in the United States as a result of this world disaster.”

Arthur Miller’s 1947 masterpiece “All My Sons” tells the fictional story of one of these more modest profiteers. Joe Keller has run a successful airplane parts business with his partner Steve Deever, with contracts that include the U.S. Army. When it is found that some of the parts are faulty, they both continue to push the parts through so not to destroy the business. Yet, 21 pilots in the war lost their lives due to these parts, and both are tried. Joe is exonerated while Steve pays for the crimes in jail. Various characters, including Joe’s son Chris and wife Kate deal with the fallout and the guilt of being associated with such heinous acts.

Hayward’s Douglas Morrison Theatre is tackling the classic Miller morality play, running through Dec. 1st. And while the play is not as frequently produced as later works such as “Death of a Salesman” and “The Crucible,” “Sons” is truly considered the first of Miller’s great works, a play that catapulted the then 32-year-old author to stardom. It was this play, which ran for 328 performances on Broadway in 1947, which earned Miller a best author Tony Award.

“All My Sons” has those ubiquitous elements found in plays like “Death of a Salesman,” namely the arcs of a family-oriented Everyman and his attempts to remain virtuous in spite of challenging professional moments.

Susan Evans is the artistic director for the DMT, and the director of their production. She has spent the past year-and-a-half at the helm, and is focusing this particular season on family portraits. It is a portrait shaped greatly by the great Greek tragedies as well as Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen.

“It is so relevant today, and not only for the continuing question of personal loyalties to your immediate family. It is relevant to ask what your responsibility is to your family at large,” said Evans. “The play came at the end of World War II, and post-traumatic stress disorder and survivor guilt is thrust right into the environment of the play.”

Ibsen was most known for writing social issues, and also for slamming a play home with a shocking turn of events at the end. It was Ibsen’s “The Wild Duck” in 1884 that laid the blueprint for “All My Sons.” “Duck”is the story of a young man who returns home to his family, while horrid secrets are revealed. Ibsen’s work, as well as those Greek tragedies where the heroes are terribly flawed yet pursue honorable lives, is found in much of Miller’s work.

Joe Keller (John Baldwin) and his wife Kate (Patricia Tyler) try to make sense of their lives post WWII in “All My Sons” at the Douglas Morrison Theatre. (Photo by Terry Sullivan)

“The show is more like grand opera, which takes you through the gamut of emotions,” said Evans. “As I told the cast early on, ‘Don’t underestimate the emotion, because it is going to impact how you feel.’

“The biggest challenge is balancing and getting actors to do the full commitment, equivalent to doing Shakespeare. You really have to go for it.”

While Miller never left a shortage of depth in his writing, Evans found what she feels is truly the heart of the play.

“This is a play about a man taking responsibility for his fellow men. Or not. That’s the question,” said Evans. “We have a responsibility for each other on the planet, and if you ignore that I think there’s a breakdown of human society. People can ignore that at their own peril.”

The simple fact is that the play examines every character deeply, and there are very few that come out unscathed. Whether it is Joe’s denial of his own culpability, Kate’s denial of the fate of their son, or Chris’ denial of his father’s role in the 21 pilot deaths, each character fights to shut down what hovers above them. And yet, only with tragedy can hope be found.

“Something that Miller said, which was a light bulb moment for me, was that he believed tragedy as a drama form is not a pessimistic form, but an optimistic form,” said Evans. “You are assuming people can be better. The reason that there is tragedy is that people can be better. We want to have the audience embrace the optimism at the end of the play.”

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

The Douglas Morrison Theatre presents “All My Sons”
Written by Arthur Miller
Directed by Susan Evans
Through Dec. 9th
Tickets range from $20 – $28
The Douglas Morrison Theatre
22311 N Third Street, Hayward, CA
For Tickets, call (510) 881-6777 or visit www.dmtonline.com

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