The play begins innocently enough. The setting, the backyard of Joe and Kate Keller (Michael Hays and Eve Davidson), evokes late-‘40s small town Americana, just after the end of World War II. Set designer Leroy Cupp’s picture-perfect postcard of a set draws the audience in. It has an intimacy of its own, separate from the action that is about to unfold.
The Kellers’ eldest son, Larry, never returned from the war. Further complicating matters, Joe and his business partner have been charged with knowingly selling defective airplane parts to the U.S. Army, resulting in the deaths of 21 American pilots. The business partner is in prison, but Joe has returned home after a short jail spell, having been exonerated by the court. And then a darker side of the plot unfolds.
Midway through the first act, George Deever (Joe Dickson), the son of the business partner, arrives, alleging that Joe was complicit in the cover-up of the defective airplane parts. Dickson’s presence ramps up the story’s tension. Suddenly, there is a bristling, angry electricity present between his character and the Keller’s adult son, Chris (Jeff Magnuson). The play really comes alive in this scene, and the energy continues through the second act.
Dickson’s role is significant and sets the tone for the rest of the play. Magnuson, Hayes and Davidson, as the ill-fated Kellers, work through a range of complex emotions — agitated pain, emotional suffering and explosive anger.
Kate Keller’s desperately brave and brittle denial of her son’s death is at the heart this conflict, and Davidson shines in this role. Hays’ edgy portrayal of Joe — as we learn of his business practices and his role in the cover up — shows a desperate conflict between pragmatic business decisions and personal morality.
Chris clearly loves his father, yet is torn apart as he learns of the cover-up. Magnuson manages to look physically sick as the character struggles with his divided feelings. There is an intense moment on the stage where these conflicts between father and son become visceral — and violently physical.
This revelatory exposition is staged with a dynamic rhythmic tension that crackles and sizzles. The audience became silent, as if everyone had stopped breathing. Kudos to director Bob Robinson, who has balanced actor against actor to great dramatic effect.
The modern relevance of Miller’s play is palpable. The war hawks are circling once again, ready to swoop into Syria and other global hotspots, while others are acutely aware that corporations like Halliburton stand to make huge profits from this course of action.
Will history repeat itself? Will we factor in the lessons of the past as we deal with our global neighbors? Only time will tell.
“All My Sons”
Riverwalk Theatre Co. 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 14; 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 15 and Saturday, Jan. 16; 2 p.m.
Sunday, Jan. 17; $10/$8 seniors, students and military Thursday; $15/$12 seniors, students and military Friday-Sunday Riverwalk Theatre 228 Museum Drive, Lansing (517) 482-5700, riverwalktheatre.com