All My Sons

by Becky Sarwate

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday September 4, 2009

The staging of the Arthur Miller classic, All My Sons, marks a fine beginning to the opening of TimeLine Theatre Company's 13th season. The inaugural offering for the 2009-2010 period, currently running at the Greenhouse Theater Center on the Mainstage, features a strong cast of seasoned Chicago theater veterans. Together this group, ably directed by Kimberly Senior, unites to explore the contemporarily relevant themes of knowledge, responsibility and corporate greed in times of war.

TimeLine Theatre states a mission of "fill[ing] a niche in Chicago's vibrant theater community by exploring history and generating discussion about today's social and political issues." Clearly, these are not simply words to the founding members of the Company. The program distributed with your ticket contains helpful supplementary materials that educate as well as entice the audience: a brief biography of Arthur Miller, a short history of American war profiteers of the World War II era, and a timeline of the war itself. These tidbits serve to place the action of the play in its context, as well as help to articulate why TimeLine has chosen the work for performance.

It is easy to see why the company elected to revive Arthur Miller's, All My Sons, which originally opened on Broadway in 1947. Purposely set in a nameless, "American town," the work remains as applicable today, in a time when the U.S. is at war on the two fronts of Iraq and Afghanistan, as it was immediately following World War II. Centered on the wealthy but dysfunctional Keller clan, the play asks us to consider what it means when the "American dream" bumps up against our moral responsibility.

Where is the line between opportunity and opportunism, and how do we know when we've crossed it? In an era where the U.S. government has been accused of outsourcing nasty elements of war to contractors like Blackwater, in an effort to contain costs, and perhaps culpability, the ethical pickle of patriarch Joe Keller (Roger Mueller) could leave corporate beneficiaries in the crowd squirming in their seats.

When the play opens, the Kellers - Joe, wife Kate (Janet Ulrich Brooks) and son Chris (Erik Hellman), appear to be the quintessential late 1940s well-to-do suburban family. They have their differences when it comes to grieving for, or in Kate's case denying, the death of elder son Larry, who has been MIA for at least three years, but as Joe repeatedly states "nothing is bigger than family." So when Chris reveals that he has invited Annie (Cora Vander Brook), the girlfriend of his deceased brother, to the house with a plan to propose, the Kellers fear nothing worse than a family squabble.

However, as the scene unfolds in this multi-layered production, the audience quickly realizes that all is not as it seems with the Kellers, on many levels. Are they beloved members of their community, or merely tolerated due to their wealth? Is Joe really an honest, hardworking family man, proud to have built a fortune with little education, or is he a corporate viper who okayed the release of faulty airplane parts that ended in the preventable deaths of 21 soldiers?

the audience quickly realizes that all is not as it seems with the Kellers, on many levels

Is Chris a flamingo who buries his head in the sand about his ill-gotten fortune in his mercenary quest to make a "normal" life for himself and Annie? The answers are, of course, complex and rarely one dimensional. It is precisely because the situation is all of these things, and at the same time, none of them, that the play is so frighteningly relatable.

The competent cast deserves much credit for creating a timeless snapshot of dramatic tension. Mueller, as Joe, looks the part of the brawny, earthy American man who makes his fortune with the labor of his hands. His vernacular speech and delivery belie his sharp business acumen as well as his intense love for his educated and philosophical son. Mueller completely disappears into the role of Joe, who is not certain that anything done can ever be wrong when it is done for your immediate family.

Brooks, as stubborn matriarch Kate, loves her brood, and is in many ways, the perfect counterpart to her husband. While she knows nothing of money and figures, she will lie to anyone, including herself, in an effort to assert control of her situation. Larry cannot be dead, and her husband could not have caused the death of any young men, as a father himself - no matter how glaring the evidence to the contrary. Brooks is intense, and at the same time, vulnerable. She is simply mesmerizing.

Hellman and Vander Broek, as young lovers Annie and Chris, are complex beyond their romantic function. At many points, it seems they are more mature and damaged than the generation of their elders. They are living proof, Chris with his undiagnosed PTSD and survivor's guilt, Annie with the young widow (but not quite) albatross around her neck, that war is hell. Kudos to both actors.

The supporting cast is strong as well. Particular cheers are due to PJ Powers as Annie's bitter and conflicted brother George, and Mark Richard as Keller family confidante Jim. Both men take what could be throwaway roles and infuse them with pathos beyond what one might expect.

All My Sons, with its adult themes and language, is fit for a PG-13 audience. But as a matter of fact, the play should be required viewing for young people struggling to make sense of our own wartime identity crisis. There is much to be learned, discussed and considered from the past, as it shapes who we are in the present. TimeLine Theatre Company's production embraces this idea and commits to it, artistically and socially, to the fullest extent.

All My Sons runs through October 4, 2009 at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Avenue Chicago, IL. Performance schedule:: Wednesday-Thursday at 7:30pm; Friday at 8pm; Saturday at 4pm and 8pm; Sunday at 2pm. Info phone: 773-404-7336. For more information visit the TimeLine Theatre website.

Becky Sarwate is the President of the Illinois Woman's Press Association, founded in 1885. She's also a part-time freelance writer, award-winning columnist and blogger who lives in the Ravenswood neighborhood of Chicago with her partner Bob and their pet menagerie . Keep up with Becky at