It was written during World War II, but Arthur Miller’s play “All My Sons” continues to resonate with audiences today. Running Friday through Sept. 21 at Sierra Repertory Theatre’s East Sonora stage, the drama’s themes of corruption, materialism and getting ahead at the expense of others are still relevant, said Scott Viets, artistic director at Sierra Repertory Theatre.
Viets, along with Dennis and Sara Jones, the theater’s producing and managing directors, said they chose the play in part because it drives people to think about right and wrong.
It’s based on a true story, which Miller’s then-mother-in-law pointed out in an Ohio newspaper. The news story described how the Wright Aeronautical Corp. had conspired with U.S. Army inspection officers to approve defective aircraft engines intended for the military from 1941 to 43.
Miller’s play, though, focuses on Joe Keller, the fictional head of the company, who is accused of releasing the defective parts. That decision sets off a series of events that highlight the play’s complex characters.
“On the surface they’re an average family,” Viets said. “But they evolve in very surprising, even shocking, ways as their secrets are exposed.”
There’s Kate, the wife who defends her husband and insists that one of her sons, missing in action, is alive. There’s Ann, who was engaged to the missing son and now plans to marry his brother. There’s Chris, the brother, a decorated war veteran who could potentially inherit the company, unknowingly profiting from his father’s business practices.
“This is a play about morals, about ethics,” Viets said. “It’s about living life at the expense of others. It comes down to deliberately doing something wrong and making peace with yourself, at least on the surface.”
That appeals to John Combs, who will come to Sonora from Los Angeles to play Joe Keller. The 60-year-old actor first saw the play when he was a drama student in his 20s.
“I remember thinking, ‘I want to play Joe Keller someday,’ ” he said. “What really jumped out at me were the layers of things beneath the surface. It’s the conundrum and the difficulty of what he is living with, the lies he has to tell. It makes for a rich character.”
Combs most recently played parts in “The Love List” by Norm Foster and “An Ideal Husband” by Oscar Wilde. He’s been in two episodes of “Law and Order” and had a small part in the film “When Harry Met Sally.” This is his first Sierra Rep production.
It’s also the first time the theater has staged a play by Miller, considered by many to be one of the great American playwrights. Miller wrote “All My Sons” after his first play, “The Man Who Had All the Luck,” failed on Broadway, lasting only four performances.
It was his final attempt at producing a commercially-successful play. He vowed to “find some other line of work” if the play did not find an audience.
But “All My Sons” won the Drama Critics Award for Best New Play in 1947, won multiple Tony Awards and established Miller as a leading voice in American theater. He went on to write other well-known plays, including “Death of a Salesman” and “The Crucible.”
“All My Sons” was twice adapted for film, in 1948 and again in 1987. Still, the work is not often seen on stage today, said Viets, who went on to explain that the theater chose it because it is one of Miller’s lesser-produced works.
“Can you believe we’ve never done an Arthur Miller before?” Viets remarked. “It’s actually kind of incredible, considering our 35-year history. So we wanted our first Miller play to be something special — a piece not done as often.”
Another thing about “All My Sons” that appealed to Viets is the play’s timeline. It’s set in a 16-hour time period, a “day in the life” of the Keller family.
“You see it practically in real time, with no flashbacks or exposition — just two several-hour time lapses,” he said. “These characters encounter painful discoveries, revelations, exposure and confusion at the same time the audience does. The audience becomes involved in the immediacy of their journey.”
The production will leave the audience with a lot to mull over, both Combs and Viets predicted.
“I think it will leave them thinking about all the things we have going on under the surface,” Combs said. “I think the audience will leave feeling like we all have this very complex character in us.”
Friday performances begin at 7 p.m., Saturday evening shows begin at 8 p.m. and Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday matinees begin at 2 p.m. Thursday times fluctuate between 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.
General admission ranges from $26 to $32. The show is rated PG-13. For reservations, call 532-3120 or visit www.sierrarep.org.