Rep’s production of ‘All My Sons’ proves Arthur Miller’s enduring genius

Patrick Ball and John Woodson in the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’ production of “All My Sons.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim Jr.

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis has launched its 50th anniversary main stage season with a powerful, riveting production of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons.” 

The Rep’s production, with superb directing by Seth Gordon and outstanding acting by the cast, reminds us why  Miller, who won the Pulitzer Prize and multiple Tony Awards, is without a doubt one of the most significant Jewish writers of the 20th century.

“All My Sons,” which opened on Broadway in 1947, deals with the fatal decision by its lead character, Joe Keller (a convincing performance by John Woodson), to hide the dangerous defects in aircraft engines in his factory during World War II. The decision may have played a role in the fate of Keller’s son Larry, who has been missing in action since his plane went down in the Pacific.

Every member of the cast is making his or her Rep debut and does so convincingly, including Margaret Daly as Joe’s wife Kate, who clings to the forlorn hope that their son Larry might still be found alive; Patrick Ball as the couple’s surviving son, Chris, and Mairin Lee and Zac Hoogendyk, who portray siblings Ann and George Deever, whose offstage father and Joe’s business partner took the fall for Joe’s actions and wound up in disgrace and prison.  The rest of the large cast also performs admirably.

Gordon’s direction deploys the various characters, whose lives intertwine on multiple levels, to drive the action forward.  When the play first opened on Broadway it was divided into three acts.  The Rep’s production, which is more than two hours long, is divided into two acts, but the powerful story line, which packs a strong moral punch, holds the audience in rapt attention throughout.

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“All My Sons,” with its narrative about the dangers of business criminality, seems as relevant as ever with issues of ethics and integrity popping up in the news, including the recent announcement of the arrest of a Volkswagen executive for criminal charges related to the company’s emissions-testing scandal.

The play is laden with symbolism, including a tree that was planted in the sumptuous yard of the Kellers’ home in the hopes that Larry might yet be found alive.  The tree is felled in a storm, leaving its stump as a reminder that Larry’s chances of being alive are an irrational obsession of his mother Kate.

Hypocrisy and indulging false hopes abound throughout the play, especially Joe Keller’s hail fellow, well-met demeanor and seeming comfort with his life despite his knowledge that someone else is paying for his decision, which may have caused the deaths of 21 U.S. pilots.

Instead of helping Kate face reality about their son, Joe indulges her fantasy that he might yet be found alive.

The fact that son Chris wants to marry Ann, the daughter of the imprisoned partner, adds to the Greek tragedy elements of the play.

The Rep’s magnificent production of “All My Sons” is a glorious reminder of Miller’s enduring legacy as one of the foremost writers of the last 100 years.