Friday, October 22, 2004

'All My Sons' ages gracefully

Cast finds truths in post-WWII plot

By Jackie Demaline
Enquirer staff writer

It is 1947 suburbia, where the Kellers are living the American Dream. Joe (Michael Shooner) is a successful manufacturer. Kate (Kate Wilford) is his loving wife. Chris (Brian Isaac Phillips) is the idealistic son who seems happy to take the world at sunny face value.

But all is not as it seems in Arthur Miller's All My Sons, on stage at Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival through Nov. 14.

Kate is in fragile health, even as she clings to her belief that son Larry, missing in action for more than three years, will return.

Chris is the one who came back from the war, suffering a secret and chafing case of survivor's guilt.

And then there's good old Joe, whose happily-ever-after is a threadbare blanket over a scandal that ruined his neighbor and partner, and nearly ruined him.

It all neatly comes to a head in the Kellers' perfect and always picnic-ready backyard with its weed-free lawn and fruit trees (nice sense of place by designer David Allan Koch.)

The occasion is the visit of Ann (Corinne Mohlenhoff), daughter of the partner, love of Larry's life and now in love with and planning to marry Chris, over Kate's adamant and rage-filled objections.

One can imagine the power All My Sons had when it debuted, with a war fresh in the nation's hearts and minds, because Miller's issues resonate strongly today, even if the play has plenty of loud creaks.

Those men (and women) who fight for us, in Europe, the Pacific, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf, Iraq and wherever, are all our sons (and daughters), which, Miller asserts, too easily and often becomes a secondary issue when some see there are fortunes to be made and too many others are too comfortable and careless to hold them accountable.

Greg Procaccino urges the ensemble through the drama with so much passion that they just about make it over a very shaky dramatic bridge. (The big "ah-hah!" that arrives with Ann's brother at the beginning of the second act that has to power the play to its end is more of a giant "huh?")

He lets the action play out in too matter-of-fact a fashion - he needs to give the audience more question marks, although 50 years later we're so savvy, not to say cynical, it might be impossible to play cat-and-mouse with us with this script.

It's easy to overlook the plotting lapse and even Miller's occasional preaching because so much of what he said then is still true now, and demands that we continue thinking about the choices we make as individuals and as a society.

It's also fun to watch good actors dig deep into big roles. Shooner gives one of his best performances as a man camouflaged in denial and Wilford is impressive as a woman who's all warm mom on the outside and at her core a she-wolf protecting her own, although I wish that she'd added the slightest shadow of illness. It would have taken her performance to something marvelous.

Phillips doesn't quite persuade me that he feels the Jimmy Stewart innocence of the era, but otherwise he does a fine job of getting into Chris' skin. Mohlenhoff, who must have a bit of chameleon in her blood, transforms herself here into an entirely believable Forties gal fighting for her love.

There's nice support from Jeremy Dubin, Kate Berry, Anita Ross and Max Nemhauser as neighbors. Matt Johnson has been giving his most controlled performances ever for the festival this season; he's strong as Ann's battle-worn brother, despite being entirely wrong physically for the role.

All My Sons, through Nov. 14, Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival, (513) 381-2273.


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