“There are certain men in the world who rather see everybody hung before they’ll take blame,” we’re told in the midst of “All My Sons”—the breakthrough stage drama by the legendary Playwright Arthur Miller, and the statement pretty much describes the play’s main protagonist and his philosophy toward others. Now, “The Kentwood Players”—the resident theater company housed in the landmark “Westchester Playhouse” in Los Angeles California are launching 2023 in a thoroughly dramatic way by presenting this, Miller’s Tony Award-Winning masterpiece, directed by Ben Lupejkis. Exploring the age-old capitalistic conundrum of placing “profit over people”, plays and performances like these don’t come any more captivating than those now offered at “The Westchester Playhouse’! To borrow from one of the lines in the show, “you’ll love this a great deal.”
Reminding us that frequently the most crucial battles take place on the smallest, most mundane battlefields, behind the picket-fences and perfectly manicured lawns, “All My Sons” stands as this renowned Dramatist’s very first unadulterated hit—and at the time, his most controversial. Combining elements of love, loss, grief and greed, (and the lies they can bring about,) its little surprise that this play was cited as a reason that Miller’s ‘patriotic loyalties’ were called into question by the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s. In it, Miller creates a post-war American family on the verge of a tragic downfall. The archetypal ‘Backyard Suburban Drama” that helped define the genre, this play accentuates the iconic playwright’s knack for capturing natural dialogue and the often-deceptive calm such conversations can mask. Through the device of seemingly commonplace or casual repartee, he ingeniously exposes how such reputedly ‘quiet’ and ‘sedate’ outlying burgs as he depicts here can be a hotbed of drama and deceit. His wordplay is at times, artfully smooth but also with every syllable, authentic. Even now decades later, “All My Sons” continues to make for some engrossing viewing–rare in today’s more contemporary plays. He also employs (to excellent effect) the use of subtle symbolism—from the “Apple Tree” that has been planted for missing son “Larry” which suddenly topples (like defective planes fall from the sky,) or the innocuous little game “Joe” plays with “Bert” and the neighborhood kids where they’re ‘Police Officers’ and he’s the ‘Sheriff’ (devised when they’d hear he was going to court every day, and innocently believed it was because he was some kind of law enforcement official.)
Set in the days just after the close of “World War II” in a yard on a simple tree-lined street where it is noted early on “nothin’s ever new”, the action unfolds over a supposed ‘uneventful’ Labor Day weekend circa 1948. This was a time when most G.I’s were home once again and trying to forget or cope with the horrors they’d experienced, setting their sights instead on getting back on their feet, closing their wounds and hiding their scars–physical, psychological or otherwise. (Their ‘private little revolutions’ Dr. Bayliss calls them.) At lights up we’re introduced to “Joe Keller” around whom just about all of the action centers. “Joe” is a successful 40’s era everyman and manufacturer of World War II essential military supplies. He lives comfortably with his wife, “Kate”, and grown son, “Chris”, in a typical bedroom community that could be in any American neighborhood. Life could be a dream save for the one sadness in their lives–the loss of their son and brother, “Larry”, an American fighter pilot, who went missing in the war. After nearly three years, “Kate” persists in clinging to the hope that her son is alive, but Chris (and Joe) would like her to give up that false hope because “Chris” wants to marry “Ann Deever”, their long-time neighbor and Larry’s former fiancée. “We’re like a railway station waiting for a train that will never come,” Chris pronounces of his mother’s obsession.
During the course of this weekend, we also learn that Joe’s company (which had a profitable contract with the U.S. Military to manufacture parts for P-40 fighter planes,) was discovered to have purposefully sold cracked cylinder heads to the Army causing numerous plane crashes and 21 pilot deaths. After being brough to trail, Joe was exonerated, but not so fortunate was his business partner and former next-door neighbor, “Steven Deever” (who is also Ann’s father.) He wound up with a prison sentence which, as the story develops, we’re also apprised he’s currently serving. Transpiring later that same evening, and starting out benignly enough, Act Two is where the real emotional drama flairs–suddenly and (as often happens in real life) when it does, it’s devastating. “Ann’s” brother “George Deever”—now a big city attorney in New York comes to confront the Keller family after paying a call on his father in prison. His visit and the turmoil it induces, lays bare secrets, which when unraveled, threaten every member of the Keller family—living and deceased. (Given that this is a story with such magnificent and dreadful consequences, let’s just suffice it to say that the ultimate climax will take your breath away!)
In all respects, Director Ben Lupejkis has his production well in hand—not to mention one that he can be thoroughly proud of. It takes a little bit ‘extra’ to take on and Arthur Miller script, and Lupejkis definitely knows the requirements and expectations here and expertly fulfills each of them. This can be an unusually tricky show to direct, owing to the first act being comprised mostly of pleasant banter with a few tantalizing snippets of exposition which will become clearer after intermission–that’s when the ‘placid’ situation suddenly explodes—and does so quickly. To his credit, Lupejkis’ steady hand manages the deceptively varied pace brilliantly. What’s more, he never allows the action to lag, but never allows it to overwhelm either. Probably the best litmus test of this arises right before the act break which, because you’re likely to be so engrossed in the goings-on, catches one completely off guard (always a good indication of a riveting drama.) Of course, it also helps that he has a remarkable cadre of actors to carry out his vision. Even those in more supporting roles add immensely to the larger on-stage narrative, working together with the solid efficiency of a high-propane engine, playing off one another superbly. Indeed, this is one example where the ‘whole’ they embody together thrillingly exceeds the sum of its individual parts.
Leading the cast is Phillip Bartolf as “Joe Keller”–an unpretentious and affable ‘Average Joe’ with a few secrets he’s harboring from friends and family alike. A manufacturer of plane parts, he’s also a father grieving the loss of a son who himself, by all reports, vanished on a mission over the China sea. “That’s what war does,” he stoically (–or should that be judiciously) observes; “I had two sons, now I have one.” Then again, “Joe” is also a man whom his surviving son accuses of “having such a talent for ignoring things.” Perhaps the true triumph of Bartolf’s interpretation lies in how engaging and sympathetic he appears. This is a guy we can all ‘root’ for, and when what’s got to happen, happens, its cataclysmic. Opposite him much of the time is Patricia Butler as his wife, “Kate Keller”, who is arguably the most complex figure in the piece. Ms. Butler gives us a woman—a mother—haunted by the son whose death she simply refuses to accept. Likewise, “Kate” has a somewhat histrionic, insistent quality that repeatedly distracts from her inner-wisdom. Everything is an ‘omen’ to her, and she is continually tormented by the most common-place occurrences (such as Apple Trees falling in a storm.) However, Ms. Butler adeptly fuses both of these attributes, making her calmer, more pithy scenes standout exceptionally well. (As a couple, Joe and Kate’s’ discourse in the second act is a genuine highlight of the entire show!)
As “Chris Keller”, Joe and Kate’s ‘surviving son’, Calvin Picou confers on us a wholesome, naïve-but-optimistic boy-next-door—but one who’s eager to finally ‘grow up’. “I’ve been a good son for too long,” he declares pensively; “A good sucker—I’m through with it.” “You’re a considerate fella,’” his pop assures him; “there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Later, in the thick of one particularly heated exchange, he expresses his lofty principles when pondering the thought that he might take over his father’s business—and the toll it could have on him if he did: “We used to shoot a man who acted like a dog, but honor was real; there, you were protecting something,” he asserts; “But here?! This is the land of the great big dogs–you don’t love a man here, you eat him!” Joining him as his hoped for fiancé “Ann Deever”, is Allison Lynn Adams. Both Picou and Adams are extremely relatable—and just as significant, likeable. These are the two we NEED to be pulling for, and given the pairs’ sublime performances, we do! Moreover, Ms. Adams also does a creditable job in her own right, while also furnishing us, the audience, with a strong—but pleasant, and always empathetic, viewpoint. If there’s anyone on stage that we’d like to see end up happy and contented, it’s her “Ann”. This is a drama though, and it’s “Chris” and “Ann’s” burgeoning relationship (and proposed nuptials) that quickly becomes the ransom at the heart of this allegorical domestic ‘hostage’ situation that “Joe” has emotionally placed them all in.
Christopher Aruffo too, offers fine support as “Dr. Jim Bayless”, the Keller’s neighbor—the kind of physician who used to make house calls. He frequently serves as a sounding board for “Joe” and “Chris”, while on several instances also revealing how the ‘Doctor’ has a frustrated idealism that he too, clings to (there are several others here who do as well,) and he really wishes he could devote more time to medical research rather than just a simple medical practice. Lisa J. Sala is also a remarkable presence as the Keller’s bitchy neighbor (and the Doctor’s wife,) “Sue Bayliss”. Ostensibly a nurse with a decided materialistic streak, she may have only a few scenes, but in each she manages to strike all the right notes (and step on all the right nerves): “I resent living next to the ‘Holy Family’,” she flat-out tells the visiting “Ann” upon their initial meeting. “It makes me look like a bum, you understand?!” Immediately following, she reinforces this suggestion many scholars have made that “Chris” may be something of a “Christ” allegory (the name “Chris” is taken from “Christ’ after all—and both of their ‘fathers’ are named “Joseph”–) when she sneers; “Chris makes people want to be better than it’s possible to be. He does that to people!”
As the other not-so-newly wedded pair (who live on the other side of the Kellers,) Roy T. Okeda is the husband “Frank”–an amateur Astrologer with a similar Quixotic streak. When chiding “Jim” for his cynicism over the medical profession, he contends “The trouble with you is you don’t believe in anything,” to which the doctor retorts, “And your trouble is you’ll believe anything!” Nadine Booth also provides a refreshingly genial spirit whenever she’s on-stage as Frank’s bubbly, good-natured wife, “Lydia”, who also grew-up near the Keller’s and their boys, but who is now married and a proud mother of three. Of equal importance to the story is Shawn K. Summerer as “Ann’s” brother “George Deever”. Summerer portrays “George” with an intriguing mix of tenacity and vulnerability, and although he doesn’t appear until the latter half of the play, BOY! Does he make his potent influence felt when he at long last does! Not to be overlooked either is Amelia Fischer who also brings with her another welcome bit of charm and vitality as young “Bert”. In this production, “Bert” has cleverly been re-cast from a little boy in the original into a pigtailed, dungaree-wearing little girl—the local ‘Tomboy’–and if anything, this change actually benefits the character. She adds a touch of innocence to some pretty ‘gritty (read: dark) material. Happily, Miss Fischer’s performance also acts as a sturdy reminder that wars (–especially World Wars) are theoretically fought to preserve the lives and safety of its future generations such as she represents.
Over and above his directorial contributions, Mr. Lupejkis is additionally the talent behind the ‘flawlessly provincial set designs, and here too, his layout couldn’t be more spot-on. He’s constructed a stream-lined, yet cozy little abode, hearkening back to a 1940’s idea of a ‘modern’ home, which opens onto a conventional “‘Levittown” inspired backyard, complete with wooden patio furniture to match. (Look through the big squeaky screen-door into the house and you’ll even notice the Keller’s have an upright Spinet piano—once a staple of such middle-class dwellings.) Remember, at this point in time, ‘tract housing’ was thus far a relatively new concept to many people, and as such it wasn’t just a place to live, it was a ‘lifestyle’–maybe even a ‘state of mind’. Mr. Summerer also pulls double-duty as the show’s Sound Designer to boot, interjecting understated sounds at key moments, such old plane engines and far away birdsongs that reflect what the performer is alluding to, as if providing a faint auditory commentary to their memories and reflections. Noteworthy too are the costumes by Sylvia Garcia—much of which, handily exemplifies the quintessence of vintage 1940’s leisure wear. She even throws in a few masterful fashion ‘curveballs’–like the nifty red hat “Lydia” concocts for “Kate’s” big night out with her family, or the sultry green silk gown (and matching wrap) she’s conjured for “Ann” to wear for the same occasion.
If you are unfamiliar with the specifics of this play, do yourself a big favor: dare to be taken totally aback–do NOT look it up and spoil the plethora of soul-stirring surprises you’re in for. Instead, let it flow over you like a warm shower that may suddenly–at any second— turn ice-cold (the theatrical experience you’ll enjoy is absolutely worth it!) Having opened January 20th , “All My Sons” is set to play through February 11th , 2023, at “The Westchester Playhouse” located at 8301 Hindry Avenue in Los Angeles CA (Please Note: all patrons and staff are still required to wear facemasks while inside the building.) Showtimes are Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 PM, with Saturday and Sunday Matinees at 2:00 PM. Tickets may be obtained online at www.kentwoodplayers.org , by emailing the box office at firstname.lastname@example.org , or calling (310) 645-5156. (Group rates for 10 or more are available and can be arranged with the box office; All box office emails and messages will be answered to confirm your ticket order.) Discounts for Seniors and Students are also available for this engagement, and any available tickets will be sold on-site beginning thirty minutes prior to each performance.
Production Stills by Gloria Plunkett, Courtesy Of “The Kentwood Players” www.kentwoodplayers.org ; Special Thanks To Shari Barrett, Ben Lupejkis, Alison Boole, Colleen Okida And To The Cast And Crew Of “The Kentwood Players” 2023 Production Of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” For Making This Story Possible.