by Arthur Miller
Directed by Martha Henry
At the Tom Patterson Theatre, June 1-October 2, 2016
Though not as acutely devastating as Death of a Salesman or as historically probing as The Crucible, Miller’s drama, written in the aftermath of World War II, crystallizes its playwright’s preoccupation with moral responsibility. Provoked by the actual scandal of Wright Aeronautical that allowed defective airplane components to be sold, resulting in the deaths of U.S. airmen, Miller shines his uncompromising light on one of the dark corners of post-war American society, where progress and pragmatism trump moral honesty and integrity. His patriarch, Joe Keller, allowed cracked cylinder heads to leave his factory with the full knowledge of their devastating consequences, and he has deviously made his partner take the blame. Joe’s pilot-son Larry has also perished, though the truth about the manner of his death is kept a secret till very late in the play. The matriarch, Kate Keller, is probably a bigger figure of blame than is Joe because in ardently wanting her brood to be safe and her home undisturbed, she has denied the truth of her husband, the dead son, and her own role in profiting from greed. Kate suffers from headaches and anxiety-fraught dreams. She believes in horoscopes and some superstitions, and her belief in being smart and practical remains her one fatal conviction. The other Keller son, Chris, a former army officer, idealizes his father until the truth spills out, and then his disillusionment and revulsion render him radically hostile to his father.
The family drama becomes especially significant because of the inherent moral issues, and Martha Henry’s production skilfully assembles all the pieces of Miller’s story, ensuring that its moral investigation and exposure do not remain merely didactic. Her production is an overall triumph. Though it opens melodramatically with a flash of lightning that fells a lonely apple tree while Kate Keller seems to both beckon and halt the ghost of her missing son, her production’s attention to small physical details starts with Douglas Paraschuk’s set of green sward backyard, white skeletal arbour, fallen apples, lawn chairs, a long wooden porch for the rough suggestion of a simple house painted white, and Louise Guinand’s expert lighting that modulates from mood to mood, starkly electric for the struck lightning of the prologue, and summer warmth for an August Sunday in Ohio, 1946. Dana Osborne’s costumes are aptly tailored to the characters. The late Todd Charlton’s sound design is startling in its choice of a melancholy solo ballad because it urges sympathy before it is earned, but its mood suits the ensuing action. And then there is the ensemble, headed by a power-house trio. Honesty compels me to add a qualification: the colour-blind casting (could there be a more oxymoronic adjective?) for the Deevers, Lubeys, and Baylisses violates sociological verisimilitude, though the performances are fine, especially those by E.B. Smith as Dr. Bayliss, Lanise Antoine Shelley as his gossiping wife, and Michael Blake as embittered George Deever, whose amiability towards the Kellers evaporates and turns to explosive rage after his belated visit to his father wasting away in prison. As his sister, Ann, who has transferred her unrequited love for the dead Keller son to his brother, Sarah Afful has her moments, but her performance always seems to know things that should be held in reserve till their opportune time.
Joseph Ziegler’s performance as Joe Keller gives the production a strong patriarchal figure. Warm with neighbourhood children, caring of his wife and surviving son, seemingly charitable to the Deevers, he maintains a firm façade till the hidden cracks show nakedly, and then his desperation and moral collapse translate into an emotional disintegration that the actor makes powerful. His climactic confrontation with his son, whom rugged Tim Campbell turns into a study of bitter moral disgust, has the flare and pungency of the spectacularly inevitable. Forming the subtle apex of a family triangle is Lucy Peacock’s Kate Keller, a superb study in cunning self-protection that carries emotional and mental freight bordering on the tragic. With this extraordinary acting trio at its head, this production takes sharp measure of the long, lingering moral and dramatic shadow cast by Arthur Miller.