Arthur Miller’s epic, tragic dramas “All My Sons” and “Death of Salesman” premiered within about two years of each other, both take place in the late ‘40s, and both concern family trauma and the collapse of the American dream.
Both are intense, heartbreaking portraits of American families, yet “Death of a Salesman” (1949) has been far more performed and hailed – including winning the Pulitzer Prize for drama and the Tony for best play.
An outstanding new production of “All My Sons” (1947) at the Richmond Hill Barn Theater in Geneseo convincingly makes the argument that this play (which won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play) is just as worthy.
Clearly and incisivelyy directed by Joe DePauw, the action of the earth-shattering piece all takes place in a backyard, with two benches, after the end of World War II. During the war, Joe Keller and Steve Deever ran a machine shop which made airplane parts. Deever was sent to prison because the firm turned out defective parts, causing the deaths of 21 military pilots, but Keller went free and made a lot of money.
“All My Sons” is set at the home of Joe, who is played by one of my favorite actors, James Driscoll. Not coincidentally, he was the profoundly moving lead Willy Loman in RHP’s 2013 “Death of a Salesman,” which also featured “All My Sons” co-star Justin Raver.
Driscoll has the square jaw, powerful authority and deep, commanding voice of a military man (which he was at one time, an Army intelligence officer, and later working many years for the IRS). Among other iconic standout roles he’s embodied are Col. Jessup in “A Few Good Men” (2015) and George in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (2016, both at the old District Theatre).
In the Richmond Hill program, Driscoll wrote in his bio that Joe Keller is “kind of a bucket list role” and he fittingly commands attention whenever he’s on stage and you miss him when he’s not. The confident veteran of over 40 shows, Driscoll almost seems like he’s stepped out of a ’40s-era black and white film.
In the story, a storm has taken down a tree that had been planted to memorialize Larry Keller, one of two Keller children — the son who did not survive the war and has been missing for three years.
Chris (played by Justin Raver), the other Keller son and a junior partner in the family business, comes outside and tells his father that the family can’t continue leading on Kate, Joe’s wife (Carol Neuleib), in her firm belief that Larry is still alive.
The heaviness of the subject matter is leavened considerably by the blooming, endearing affection between Chris and Ann Deever (Leslie Day), who is Steve’s daughter and was Larry’s girlfriend.
The very pretty, sunny Day has an adorable chemistry with Raver (who is likable, unassuming and upstanding as Chris). Joe has no real problem with the idea in itself, but fears that Kate will not allow it, since Annie is “Larry’s girl,” and to give Annie to Chris would mean that Larry is really dead.
So a lot of the tension of the story is between the excellent Neuleib as the grieving, intractable mom who won’t give up hope, and the family members around her who beg her to move on, and let Chris and Annie start a new life.
All of the main characters seem to carry burdensome emotional baggage, and there are many explosive, anguished moments throughout – including from Kevin Keck as Ann’s brother George. He is seeking answers for why their father is in prison and Steve’s father gets to be free.
The uniformly solid cast also features John Simosky, Dana Skiles, David Beeson, Elizabeth Shaffer, and the second-grader Jake Turner as little Bert, who has a couple cute scenes with Driscoll.
Another neat aspect of this electrifying drama is the sensitive, atmospheric lighting by the multi-talented Jennifer Kingry (lighting and sound designer/operator). One corner of the in-the-round set is a brick wall, with screen door, second-floor window and flowering plant on the step, all awash in shadows.
Some of that shadowy lighting also appears on some of the actors on stage. That really helps add texture and depth to the proceedings.
“All My Sons” will continue this Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. at the Barn Theater in Richmond Hill Park.
Admission to all performances is $12. Reservations are recommended and can be made online HERE or by calling the box office at 309-944-2244. Late seating is not permitted; no one will be admitted to the theater after the show has started.