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All My Sons

At the Loeb Ex through Saturday

By Sim Johnston

Until recently, at least, it has been men like Henry Ford and his dull-eyed descendants in the corporate board room who have monopolized the American way of thinking. "What's good for General Motors is good for the country" seemed like a worthy precept to everyone, except all those strident moralists and crackpot spiritual athletes who thought otherwise. The artist, of course, was always in this small group of dissidents, and, if he didn't go off to Europe seeking art for art's sake, he spent most of his time at home pointing out the dilemmas of a society whose sole motivation is blind greed. It was the playwright who exploited these dilemmas best, partly because other artists avoided the plight of the "normal" person altogether. The poetry and novels of the post-war period are filled with madmen and dropouts but with few members of the overwhelming nine-to-five majority. Only the playwright has generally found his material in Mom & Dad & Bud & Sis living next door in seeming content with the system, and he has made it his business to expose all the fears and contradictions that lie underneath the complacent enjoyment of material wealth. His method of exposure is almost always the same: the introduction of some moral dilemma into the lives of his characters, which interrupts their mindless pursuit of Fat City and reveals the bankruptcy of their natures.

All My Sons is an excellent play of this type, although it is marred by an excessive reliance on melodrama. Joe Keller is proud of his material success, but unfortunately it is stained with blood. Shadily, he has been acquitted of manufacturing faculty aircraft parts during the war which caused the death of twenty-one pilots, and when the play opens, his partner is in jail, taking the rap for him. Of Joe's two sons, one has been killed in action, and the other, Chris, intends to marry his dead brother's ex-fiance, the convicted partner's daughter. Chris is a strident idealist ashamed of having survived the war; material possessions sicken him, particularly if they have been acquired in the "merchants of death" fashion by profiting from the war. Miller concentrates on two shifting relationships: between Chris and his girl, and between Chris and his father. Joe Keller (like Willy Loman) had to compromise in order to succeed; and his son Chris is overwhelmed by the revelation of paternal guilt. How can he marry the daughter of a man who was imprisoned because of his father's perjury? Miller solves this impasse with a heavy does of melodrama which mars the final act. The play ends with a violent solution, but even then we leave the characters in a seemingly impossible bind that is the result of the father's hedging his ideals to suit his business career.

Despite its occasional soap opera suds (which the acting in no way discourages) the play satisfies in the normal Miller fashion; the message never gets in the way of the entertainment, and the multiplicity of plot complications and the vividly drawn characters are constantly absorbing. The production itself is in line with the high standards of the Loeb Ex so far this year. Jon Terry gives a strong performance as Joe Keller, supremely confident in himself when going through the motions of the American business man but is a flake otherwise. Ellen Olivier is superb as his troubled wife Kate who cannot perform the slightest duty without conveying the knowledge that she has lost a son in the way and has a crook for a husband. Jeff Melvoin is quite good at presenting the idealistic side of Chris Keller but falters somewhat when he has to break down after learning of his father's crime--the weakness here is partly Miller's fault. And the other members of the cast give a suitable impression of the next door neighbors who have let their lives settle to a low burn and surround the Keller household with the atmosphere of small town anesthesia, which is what the play is ultimately about. Miller has shown us the bankruptcy of our materialist culture, and his play is a song of the post-war American blues.

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