Eleven years can feel like a lifetime ago — especially in an era where the news cycle can make a week seem to last a month — but that’s how long it’s been since All My Sons last appeared on Broadway. The 1947 play was Arthur Miller’s first hit, coming before the equally lauded likes of Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, and A View From the Bridge. Even if you didn’t see that 2008 production (which starred John Lithgow, Dianne Wiest, Patrick Wilson, and Katie Holmes), there’s a good chance you’ve encountered it in some other incarnation over its 70-plus years of existence. Hop a plane to London right this minute, if you’re so inclined, and there’s a version running in the West End, too.
All this to say, Sons needs little introduction for its return to Broadway, where a new revival opened Monday at the American Airlines Theatre — nor do the play’s powerhouse stars, Annette Bening and Tracy Letts. But revivals of famed titles with big names blazed on the marquee still need to live up to those storied reputations, and this gripping new production earns its place in that venerable orbit.
Letts and Bening are a formidable pair as Joe and Kate Keller, a businessman and his wife grappling with the intersection of family obligations and personal guilt and the costs (both financial and moral) of chasing the American dream. The Kellers have been shattered twofold by World War II — by the disappearance of their son Larry, who never returned home from war, and by a scandal involving Joe’s factory, which sold faulty airplane parts to the Army that led to the deaths of 21 pilots.
Joe was exonerated in the case and maintains his innocence, but his onetime neighbor and partner, Steve Deever, was convicted and sent to jail. When the Kellers’ other son, Chris (American Psycho’s Benjamin Walker), invites Steve’s daughter, Ann — who also happens to be Larry’s former sweetheart — back home to visit, it sets off a chain of events as foreboding as the vicious storm that takes down Larry’s memorial tree in the the backyard the day she arrives.
Director Jack O’Brien lets the dread slowly build as Miller’s story unfolds, making its idyllic Midwestern backyard setting anything but serene (the set design is by Douglas W. Schmidt, with newsreel-like video and projections from Jeff Sugg). Bening — in her first Broadway appearance in more than 30 years — is excellent as Kate, who holds so ferociously to the belief her son can’t be dead because of what else she’ll have to accept if he is, while actor-playwright Letts holds court as the seemingly genial patriarch with tension simmering beneath that calm exterior. And Walker’s Chris is tragic in a very different way, as his excitement over marrying Ann and his admiration of his father are both profoundly shattered.
They’re surrounded by an able cast that includes Francesca Carpanini as Ann; Hampton Fluker as her intense lawyer brother, George; and an array of neighbors who have their own feelings about what Joe did, or didn’t do. (A side note: The revival’s original director, Gregory Mosher, quit the production over a dispute with the Miller estate regarding casting actors of color for George and Ann Deever; this version incorporates color-blind casting for some of the roles, including George, but not Ann.)
It all comes together in a stellar, harrowing production that reinforces why Miller’s works still endure so many decades later: The world is filled with hardships and horrors, but they can also be lurking in your own backyard. A
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