Saturday July 28, 2012

PITTSFIELD -- As the lights come up on Barrington Stage Company's finely tuned, emotionally charged production of Arthur Miller's 1947 drama, "All My Sons," on the Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, Joe (a perfectly cast Jeff McCarthy) is chatting with his neighbor, Dr. Jim Bayliss (a truthful, subtly shaded Peter Reardon), who is examining a fallen tree, victim of an overnight storm.

This was no ordinary tree. It was planted in honor of Larry Keller, the older of Joe's two sons, an Army pilot reported missing in action three years earlier, about the same time Joe and his then business partner, Steve Deever, were tried and sentenced -- Joe lightly; Steve still in prison -- for shipping cracked cylinder heads to the U.S. government, without warning about the defect, thereby causing the deaths of 21 pilots in plane crashes.

While Joe and his surviving son, Chris (Josh Clayton), acknowledge between themselves that Larry is dead, Joe's wife, Kate (Lizbeth Mackay), clings passionately to the belief that he is still alive somewhere in the world. Indeed, so deeply rooted is her conviction that she makes it abundantly clear to to Larry's visiting girlfriend, Ann (a compelling and captivating Rebecca Brooksher), that she will do everything she can to keep her from marrying Chris.

Joe has maintained his innocence in the scandal throughout. His affability and his skill at buying respectability have allowed him to entertain the notion that he's been accepted by the community. But the arrival of Ann's lawyer brother, George (a powerfully persuasive Matthew Carlson), following a prison visit to his father, sends tremors through Joe when George suggests he will reopen the case. A tree, it seems, is not the only element that has sustained collateral damage. Truth, honor, idealism will all fall by the wayside by the time "All My Sons" runs its course.

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"All My Sons" was Miller's first Broadway success. It set the stage not only for his second, far more resounding, success, "Death of a Salesman" in 1949, it holds the basic themes that run throughout the Miller canon -- honor; the meaning and value of one's name; taking on responsibility for one's acts and their consequences; ethics both in business and in private life; the dynamics of family; the ways in which the drive to achieve the American Dream corrupts and corrodes one's moral sense while, at the same time, serves as a driving force for individualism, ingenuity and imagination.

McCarthy brings a palpable working class earthiness to the role of Joe. Combined with a folksy, easy Jimmy Stewart-style affability and genuine charm, it's easy to see why people feel comfortable with him. At the same time, he is no pushover. Clearly, this is a man who has built family and business from the roots. You can feel the dirt on his hands, under his fingernails, in more ways than one. Until George's arrival, he's been good at buying off trouble. His survival skills, however, turn out to be no match for the truth.

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Clayton's Chris is affecting and ingratiating, pure and winning, especially when he is with Brooksher's luminous Ann. His naive, pure idealism is both his strength and his vulnerability. Its unforgivable loss carries the force of a magnitude 9.5 earthquake.

Mackay plays Kate with stunning intensity. Her ferocious insistent devotion to the myth of Larry's fate is tough, unyielding, uncompromising.

The supporting cast is strong, especially Pilar Witherspoon as Bayliss' wife, Sue, who is caught in a marriage that has fallen far short of her expectations. But, then, expectations do die hard in the backyard of Joe Keller's home on a day that begins in the glow of sunshine and ends in the dark early hours of a new day.