Arthur Miller spent much of his early career questioning the validity of the American Dream. In his 1949 masterwork, Death of a Salesman, he dared to suggest that a man can work hard, play by the rules, and still end up on the ash heap.
People's Light & Theatre Company in Malvern is opening its season with a revival of All My Sons, the 1947 Miller play that immediately preceded Salesman. Like Salesman, All My Sons deals with an American family buffeted by internal divisions and larger economic forces, though this time, the patriarch is the manipulator of those forces rather than their victim.
Though the People's Light production has an entirely African-American cast, director Kamilah Forbes doesn't remake the play to show us Miller's vision of the American Dream from a black perspective. This is a solid, traditional production in which race is largely beside the point and the characters just happen to be black.
The central character, Joe Keller, made a fortune during World War II manufacturing military aircraft. He spent time in prison when 21 of those planes crashed due to defective parts. He was eventually exonerated, but his partner, Steve, was deemed responsible for the disasters and remains in prison after the war's end. Joe's son, Larry, was reported missing in the war, but Kate, his mother, refuses to believe he is dead and is convinced he will return.
Joe invests all of his energies in Chris, his remaining son. Chris has invited Ann, Steve's daughter, to visit the Kellers. Ann had been Larry's girl, but Chris has had his eye on her and tells Joe he plans to ask Ann to marry him. Joe opposes the match and fears how Kate will react when she learns of it. Ann and her brother, George, stopped speaking to Steve when he was convicted. But George decides to visit Steve in prison to inform him of Ann's impending engagement. This leads to a number of huge revelations and eventually to the destruction of the Keller family.
Difficult and emotional
The People's Light cast handles the difficult and emotional material beautifully. Michael Genet's Joe alternates among charming, defensive, and ruthless. Melanye Finister at times exudes motherly strength as Kate, yet her frequent flights of delusion about Larry are heartbreaking, and the tiny wounded animal sound she emits when she finally learns of Larry's fate is a master stroke. Ruffin Prentiss conveys Chris's idealism and sincerity as he tries to make Joe believe that there are things more important than the family and the business. Margaret Ivey is charming as Ann, and Akeem Davis makes a formidably seething George. There also are good smaller turns by Taysha Canales, Joliet Harris, G. Alverez Reid, Brian Anthony Wilson, and Yannick Haynes as the Kellers' neighbors.
Troy Hourie's set depicts a picture-postcard Midwestern neighborhood. The only signs of wear and tear are on the Kellers' house and in their yard, reflecting the decay that has set in on the family.