By Kathie Isaac-Luke
For The Union Democrat
When Sara Jones, managing director of Sierra Repertory Theatre, introduced the company's production of Arthur Miller's "All My Sons" at Friday night's opening, she remarked that it is sometimes difficult to get audiences to turn out for a drama.
But this play, which opened to a less than capacity audience, is not just any drama. This is a play of great power and depth written by one of America's most important playwrights. And, it is performed by a company who treats the material with deserved reverence and renders every detail with precision.
By any measure, SRT's rendition of this timeless piece is a flawless production.
First performed in 1947, the play won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award and two Tony Awards, and secured Miller's place in American theater.
The story focuses on Joe Keller, the head of a business that contracted with the military to make engine parts for airplanes during World War II. When a shipment of cracked cylinder heads results in the death of 21 pilots, Joe denies any responsibility and shifts the blame to his business partner, who is given a prison sentence for the crime.
The play begins benignly enough in the backyard of the Keller home in 1947. The war is over and hope should be in the air. Deborah H. Malcolm's beautiful and elaborate set, with its inviting porch and grassy lawn, is reminiscent of a protected environment. But even in this idyllic setting, it is apparent that something is amiss.
Joe Keller knows that his son, Larry, listed as missing in action, has been killed in the war. But his wife Kate insists that Larry is still alive. Chris, the Keller's surviving son, is now planning to marry his brother's former fiancee, Ann. To complicate matters further, Ann is the daughter of Joe's convicted business partner.
Kate is vehemently opposed to the marriage because it would mean letting go of her conviction that Larry will be returning.
But there is another more ominous secret hanging over the Keller family. Each character is dealing with the suspicion that Joe is actually guilty and has been exonerated at his partner's expense. Scott Viets' taut direction builds momentum as layers of illusion are peeled away, allowing the repressed to rise to the surface.
All of the cast members inhabit their roles so completely, and so authentically capture their character's emotions, that the audience becomes increasingly invested in the story.
John Combs is superb as Joe Keller, whose assured and amiable façade suggests a decent and trustworthy man. As he banters with neighbors who drop by, and plays with a neighborhood boy, it is easy to see how his family can convince themselves of his innocence.
In a powerful performance, Michael Hampton plays Chris Keller, the idealistic and conflicted son. Chris has idealized his father and is unable to face that his livelihood may be tainted by his business practices.
Jessica Powell gives a remarkable, heart-rending performance as Kate Keller. Fiercely protective of her husband, her loyalty comes at a terrible price. Powell completely captures the depth of her character's denial in scenes that are both powerful and moving.
Alyson Lindsay is luminous as Ann Deever. In a sincere and heart-felt performance, Lindsay skillfully shifts from her character's outward fragility to her inner strength and determination.
Nick Ferrucci plays Ann's brother, George Deever. Seething with anger, George has just visited his father in prison for the first time, and is determined to prevent his sister from marrying Chris. In a strong performance, Ferrucci skillfully imparts his character's conflict as well as his feelings of pain and betrayal.
Wonderful support is provided by the actors who play the neighbors, each of them reflecting different degrees of compromise themselves. Michael Ludlum is excellent as Dr. Jim Bayliss, who has sacrificed his own idealism for a comfortable lifestyle. His wife, Sue, a materialistic, cynical and often cruel woman, is brought to vivid life in a memorable performance by Olga O'Farrell.
Breton Nicholson convincingly plays Frank Lubey, a well meaning but somewhat insensitive man, whose dabbling in astrology serves to enable Kate to cling to her belief that her son is still alive.
Stephanie Tucker gives a fine performance as Lydia Lubey, Frank's sunny but naive wife.
And making his SRT debut in a charming performance is Corbin Kerr as Bert, the neighborhood boy who has befriended Joe.
The lighting design by Peter Leibold VI perfectly complements the action as the light moves from dark to full sun to twilight and back again to dark.
The costumes by Kristine Doiel are handsome and appropriate to the era. The costumes worn by Kate and Annie are especially striking.
As the play moves toward its shattering conclusion, the dynamics of the Keller family spill out into the larger community. In his carefully structured play, Miller has used the issues facing the Kellers to explore larger themes of loyalty, ethics and responsibility toward others.
My husband, who had never seen the play before, is still talking about it days later. As the play concluded, I was thinking that this drama exemplifies why we attend theater - to be challenged, provoked and finally exhilarated. In this offering of "All My Sons," SRT has provided an opportunity for the community to experience theater at its finest. I have seen this play performed twice before, and you will not see a finer production anywhere.
"All My Sons" runs through Sept. 21 at the East Sonora theater. For reservations, call 532-3120 or visit www.sierrarep.org.