The lights came up on the stage of the Kennedy Theatre on Thursday night, with a beautiful, middle-aged woman in a nightdress sitting on a tree swing in the darkness of a thunderstorm. The violence of the storm and its destruction drives her back into the house, and all goes black once more.
This moment, which cannot have lasted more than 30 seconds, is a perfect sampling of why Theatre Raleigh’s Hot Summer Nights Series production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons is so affecting on its audience: the sounds, the sights, and the actors.
Without getting into a lengthy synopsis (Wikipedia is linked below): Arthur Miller channels Greek tragedy and criticism of the “American Dream” (which he would later explore in Death of a Salesman) in what is regarded as his first successful play.
When the play begins, it’s the summer of 1946. The timeline of history has moved on, but the Keller family has not. One of their sons went missing during World War II, and his whereabouts are of great debate. Though this lost son is certainly a MacGuffin (a device to forward the plot), the aftermath of his disappearance sets the stage for rage, suspicion, and guilt. This is the foundation on which the production must build. And an engrossing and heartbreaking production has, indeed, been built by director Michael Berry and his masterfully assembled team.
The Kennedy Theatre gets dark during a blackout. Very, very dark. It always has. That fact has worked out in the audience’s favor. Thomas Mauney’s lighting design is highly specific and subtle. He doesn’t mind leaving characters in shadows, lurking. Adding lighting fixtures and a fire pit serves to enhance the mood of several scenes. The audience leans in to see who’s coming around the corner and it is not always who you expect.
Eric Collins’ sound design is so ingenious and so complex that one could have a field day analyzing the subtleties of his motifs and audible symbols, as one would a piece of written text in an English classroom. In tandem with Allison White’s precise, character-driven costume design and Timothy Domacks’ exact property design, the show is utterly absorbing.
The set, designed by Chris Bernier, provides a highly realistic palette on which these strokes can be painted. Bernier’s notable attention to detail includes the flora of the environment (plants, trees, grass, leaves, etc.), although the jumble of trees on stage right may be too undeveloped to reach par with the rest of the set.
The most important words one takes away from this production are: Julie Fishell as Kate Keller. She gives a Tony®-worthy performance. On the macro level, her performance is intense, jarring, and graceful. I have never sympathized with Kate in this way before. On the micro level, Fishell’s every move is telling. Even the way she adjusts her hair or fixes her apron is telling the story.
Along with her is the character of Joe Keller, played with dynamic range and strength by Mitch Poulos, who again makes it very easy to sympathise with a character that could otherwise been viewed as corrupt. I would pay good money to see Poulos’ interpretation of Willy Loman.
Charlie Brady is an honest and believable Chris Keller. Estes Tarver’s brooding George Deever gives the audience a great sense of unease, and George’s unpredictability is unsettling. Meagan Mackenzie Chieppor gives us a vulnerable but strong Ann Deever, though Miller doesn’t give her much to play until the second act.
Hazel S. Edmond presents a controlling, strong Sue Bayliss, the Kellers’ neighbor, and does much to keep her husband, Dr. Jim Bayliss, played debonairly but, perhaps, too subtly by Jade Arnold. Local trouble-seeking adolescent Bert is played with energy and humor by Seth Schenall, who holds his own in a battle of wits with Poulos. Brian Yandle and Lindsey Gautier give appropriately perky performances as Frank and Lydia Yubey, giving us a glimpse into the Leave it to Beaver world that exists outside the Kellers’ front yard.
Michael Berry directs All My Sons with a surgeon’s scalpel. His direction follows the same philosophy that Miller himself stated: this story holds reserved power that slowly unwinds for the audience until the gasps start. His decision to cast three actors of color (as Dr. Bayliss, Sue Bayliss, and Bert) is a wise one. It lends to believability, and nothing in Miller’s text demands any particular race in casting.
The play has been traditionally performed by an all-white cast, but many productions have used racially homogenous casting or have done non-white productions, often to explore race as a key issue. It also speaks to the humanity of the Keller family, who do not appear to see the race of their neighbors as an issue, as many others during the time would. Much could be studied about the implications of this dynamic, especially in regard to Joe Keller’s interactions with Bert, which take on new meaning.
I highly recommend you go do some gasping of your own down at Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy. The show contains some language that may not be suitable for young kids, but I’d give it a PG-13.
SECOND OPINION: June 9th Raleigh, NC News & Observerreview by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/arts-culture/article82788327.html; and June 8th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/all-my-sons/Event?oid=5034385.
Theatre Raleigh presents ALL MY SONS at 8 p.m. June 11, 3 p.m. June 12, 8 p.m. June 15-17, 2 and 8 p.m. June 18, and 3 p.m. June 19 in the Sara Lynn and K.D. Kennedy, Jr. Theatre in the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27601.
TICKETS: $30 ($28 seniors 65+).
BOX OFFICE: 919-832-9997, firstname.lastname@example.org, or https://theatreraleigh.secure.force.com/ticket.
GROUP RATES (10+ tickets): 919-832-9997 or email@example.com.
PRESENTER: http://www.theatreraleigh.com/, https://www.facebook.com/pages/Theatre-Raleigh/349124511834045, and https://twitter.com/TheatreRaleigh.
All My Sons: A Drama in Three Acts (1947 Broadway play): http://www.dramatists.com/cgi-bin/db/single.asp?key=1817 (Dramatists Play Service, Inc.), https://www.ibdb.com/Show/View/1455 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All_My_Sons (Wikipedia).
The Script: https://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
Study Guide: https://www.timelinetheatre.com/all_my_sons/AllMySons_StudyGuide.pdf (TimeLine Theatre Company of Chicago, IL).
Arthur Miller (American playwright, 1915-2005): https://www.ibdb.com/Person/View/4316 (Internet Broadway Database) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Miller (Wikipedia).
Michael Berry (New York, NY director): https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=779842927 (Facebook page).
Dustin K. Britt is a Raleigh native, holds a master’s degree in special education from East Carolina University, and teaches high school writing and literature. He can be spotted all over the Triangle area either painting scenery or chewing on it. He has received local theater award nominations for doing both. He is a devoted cinephile and author of Hold the Popcorn, a movie blog on Facebook. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.