It takes guts for a community theater to challenge audiences accustomed to light comedic fare with a drama as stark as Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. Heck, it takes guts for any theater company to stage what may well be the greatest play of the 20th Century and do it justice.

IMG_3339e Whittier Community Theatre undertakes this gutsy challenge with largely positive results in this, its 91st Season.

Debuting on Broadway less than two years after World War II ended with Japan’s surrender, Miller’s examination of personal responsibility in time of war remains every bit as impactful and relevant today, sixty-six years after its New York premiere.

The 1947 Tony Award winner revolves around a day in the life of the Kellers, a Midwest family who seem from the outside to be living the American Dream. At curtain up, prosperous factory owner Joe Keller (Richard Large), his wife Kate (Candy Beck), and their adult son Chris (Justin Patrick Murphy) are welcoming a visit from grown up next door neighbor Ann Deever (Alexandra Ozeri), back in town for the first time since moving to New York several years earlier. Ann and the Kellers’ older son Larry were an item when Larry went off to war, but the elder Keller boy was declared missing in action three years ago, and there has been no word of his fate. Though Kate steadfastly refuses to believe that Larry is dead, Ann apparently feels quite differently about the matter. She and Chris have been corresponding secretly for the past two years, and Ann’s return home signals a change in their relationship. Friendship has turned to long distance love, and Chris is planning to propose to Ann. There’s only one hitch. An engagement between Chris and Ann would mean a tacit acceptance of Larry’s death, and this is something which Kate will never do.

IMG_3177e There’s one other stumbling block to the young couple’s potential happiness together. Ann’s father (and Joe’s business partner) Steve was sentenced to prison three years earlier for having knowingly sent out a shipment of defective airplane parts from Joe’s and his factory, cracked cylinder heads which led to the deaths of twenty-one pilots. Joe had initially been found guilty as well, however his insistence that he was home sick in bed the day the order got shipped out, corroborated by Kate, soon relieved him of any responsibility for the plane crashes, and he was subsequently released from prison.

When Ann’s brother George (Normal Dostal) shows up on the Kellers’ doorstep following a prison visit with his father, the stage is set for a two-family showdown which will forever alter the path of Chris Keller’s life and the lives of those he loves.

All My Sons works brilliantly on many levels—as a story of family, as a love story, as a mystery, and as a discussion starter. Even six and a half decades after its premiere, All My Sons’ questions still ring true. Does a person’s responsibility to his family trump his responsibility to his country? Does war bring out the worst in people, or their best? Can a person go on living without self respect or the respect of others?

IMG_3377e Director Roxanne Barker understands Miller well, and has cast a trio of lead actors whose performances rival those you might expect to see in a professional regional theater, particularly noteworthy since in the grand tradition of American community theater, everyone involved with All My Sons is doing so without monetary compensation for the unadulterated joy of making theater.

Despite a few scattered instances of tripping over lines, Large is as fine a Joe Keller as you could hope to see, a man who dropped out of school young, pulled himself up by his bootstraps, and succeeded through smarts, not education. Later, as Joe’s secrets are revealed one by one and we watch the downward spiral of a life falling to pieces, Large’s work transcends community theater and simply becomes acting at its most compelling.

IMG_3350e WCT staple Beck vanishes inside Kate Keller’s homespun skin, the actress’s natural warmth making it no wonder that the neighborhood loves her and that George falls quickly back under her spell. When Kate morphs into a lioness defending her pride against outside invaders bound and determined to destroy her faith and hope, Beck reveals the ice-cold steel beneath the surface in a rich, memorable performance.

As for Murphy, though the young leading man seemed slightly challenged at first by Miller’s vaguely dated turns of phrases, it didn’t take long for the WCT vet to prove his acting mettle—and then some—in a series of gut-wrenchingly powerful scenes opposite Large and Beck.

IMG_3268e A pair of supporting performances stand out. As George, Dostal faces the challenge of a character whose emotions change on a dime, and succeeds in making us believe both his anger at, and the love he can’t help feeling for, the Kellers. Shannon Fuller makes the very most of her pair of scenes as Keller neighbor Sue Bailess, giving us a finely etched rendering of a woman whose sunny exterior vanishes when the need arises to defend her marriage against potential interlopers.

Ozeri does some impressive work as Ann once the gloves have come off in her Act Three confrontation with Kate, though earlier scenes would play more effectively with some vocal coaching to deepen the actress’s naturally high-pitched tones.

Todd Rew and Casey Morlet both have good moments as Keller neighbors Dr. Jim Bailess and Lydia Lubey. As for Ernie Rivera (Frank Lubey) and John Noah Molina (Bert), experience will surely improve the youthful duo’s acting chops, though in their defense, neither appears the right age for his part.

IMG_3124e Set designer Suzanne Frederickson faces the challenge of filling a mid-sized proscenium stage on a very limited budget, and though the Keller home is considerably smaller and simpler than others I’ve seen, it does the trick, particularly as lit by Nancy Tyler, and the same can be said for Karen Jacobson’s well-chosen costumes and props. Rosalva Reza’s sound design insures that the actors’ voices are sufficiently amped for anyone without a hearing impairment.

Richard DeVicariis is producer and Emilie Brazeau is stage manager.

IMG_3070e Whittier Community Theatre deserves high marks for challenging its loyal subscribers with some decidedly serious fare and for giving three splendid “non-professional” actors the chance to prove that they can stand up quite nicely against the pros. Though somewhat rough around the edges, this daring WCT offering should leave audiences every bit as moved and shaken as Arthur Miller intended them to be when he sat down to write this great American classic.

Whittier Community Theatre, The Center Theatre, 7630 S. Washington Ave., Whittier.

–Steven Stanley
February 24, 2013

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