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War and Regret

TheatreWorks looks at timeless social tensions in 'All My Sons'

By Marianne Messina

WHEN THE FIRST SCENE of a play stars thunder and lightning and a falling tree, you know you're in for a stormy ride. That's pretty much what TheatreWorks delivers in its strong current production of Arthur Miller's post-World War II play All My Sons. With its focus on corporate war profiteering and questions of social responsibility ("There's a universe of people outside, and you're responsible"), the story could easily be contemporary, complete with complaints about the growing white-collar workforce. "Spit on the sidewalk, you hit a college man," says patriarch and "respected" businessman Joe Keller.

In All My Sons, Miller uses the microcosmic Keller family--Chris (Jeffrey Cannata), the idealistic war veteran, and Joe (Will Marchetti), his pragmatic father--to dissect the larger arena of all-American tensions: book learning vs. practicality, idealism vs. self-interest, consumerism vs. compassion. "I could jail him if I were human anymore," Chris says of his father at one point, "but now I'm practical." After the vital immediacy of war, Chris (whose brother didn't survive the war) is having trouble blending with the remote, acquisitive social architecture of peacetime.

Most of the play takes place in the Kellers' verdant backyard, which Miller painstakingly scripted and which TheatreWorks scenic director Andrea Bechert nicely reproduces down to the garden hose coiled on its spigot. The upper facade of the Kellers' home is riddled with the gaps of missing clapboards, so the audience can literally "see through the facade" and sense that it's about to crumble. How? The ominous low rumble of airplane engines planted strategically throughout the play by sound designer Christopher Neumeyer foreshadows the answer.

The production moves from a sanguine opening (some overkill on the good-natured chuckles) to the growing conflict between Joe and Chris, until it hits twin confrontational peaks. At this point, the rage seems to plateau rather than escalate, most likely due to a combination of factors: uncertain choreography, restrictive body movements or limited use of the stage. In fact, the actors often seem to funnel all their emotion into their hands. Chris holds chronically balled fists at his sides; his girlfriend Anne (a pert and dimpled Cassie Beck) invests her feelings in assorted hand-model poses.

But these minor flaws take little away from the deeply emotional performances of Marchetti and Cannata. Speaking from desperate pragmatism ("I was thrown out at the age of 10), the father admits to his son, who is still raw from the utter interdependence of human beings in combat, that he sent imperfect airplane engines to the military, and the two wrench out the gamut of family angst.

Carla Spindt, as Joe's wife, the cookies-and-juice homemaker Kate, cleverly splices serving and controlling. Geno Carvalho plays fellow veteran George Deever as suitably high-strung (and possibly shell-shocked). Danielle Levin offers up a nicely flitting, June Allyson-type neighbor. And Colin Thomson, as neighborly Jim Bayliss, is charming in the candid scene with Kate. "Nobody realizes how many people are walking around loose, and they're as cracked as coconuts," Bayliss says--a perfect observation for our times as well.

All My Sons, a TheatreWorks production, plays Tuesday at 7:30pm, Wednesday-Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm and 8pm and Sunday at 2 and 7pm through March 28 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Rd., Palo Alto. Tickets are $20-$48. (650.903.6000)

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From the March 10-17, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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