For years, the Kellers of Sons have captivated the American imagination. Even in 1947, when All My Sons had just debuted and Arthur Miller was still “a new talent,” the New York Times raved that the Kellers were a perfect example of the “tangled loyalties of human beings.” Since that first review, Sons has been staged countless times — at different points in American history — and it has never ceased to be relevant. This seemingly straightforward play tends to expose its character’s flaws in such a gradual, haunting way that audiences are practically bludgeoned with its central message: America isn’t perfect, and Americans are definitely not perfect. That’s where the play’s austerity lies — in the grave, calibrated reveal of that devastating sentiment.
Sons is set directly after World War II, which means that America is just starting to get its sh*t together again. It fixates on the story of Joe Keller, who may or may not have indirectly caused the deaths of 21 World War II pilots and then placed the blame on his business partner. (Ugh. Swipe left.) His wife cloaks herself in the very American delusion that her husband and life are perfect … just perfect. His younger son is naive and rich. That son’s girlfriend/fiancee is sweet and sophisticated, and wears dresses which reflect these personality traits. His older son is probably dead. In Act 3, everything falls apart.
Under the play’s stark — and at times relentless — lighting design, the actors of All My Sons seem to glitter with multifaceted charm. Jeff Barry is affecting and compelling as the naive son who gradually confronts his parents’ flaws and his own disillusionment. Christopher McHale and Kate Udall are perfectly cynical as the Elder Kellers, who keep their inner struggles at bay by flinging side-eyes and bon mots. All of their classy, period-appropriate costumes blend seamlessly with props provided by VSC’s Sam Flint and Jesse Ciccolella.
Through all of this, there is a single tree towards the front of the stage. It represents the Kellers’ older and missing son, but after it is chopped down by the younger son, Chris, it also represents the loss of his — and our — innocence. As Chris slowly and surely grows into manhood by the end of the play, he becomes stripped of all childlike hope and pretense and eventually accepts the morally ambiguous nature of the world in which we live. There’s some talk about how each of us has a responsibility to our fellow humans, and there is some reflection on World War II’s lingering damage to the American way of life. This is all well and good, but are we supposed to get anything out of this???
Thankfully, yes. There’s a grace note at the end of the play when the main lights dim and a spotlight shines on the stage’s sole American flag. After the verifiable emotional beating that we have all just taken, we’re now invited to ponder the significance of this flag — this familiar symbol which looms over our lives. We revel in its quiet power; we beg for its forgiveness. We then realize, eventually, that it’s OK for the Kellers to be imperfect. It’s OK for us to be imperfect. It’s also OK for us to question that flag, because it represents an imperfect country, and we’re deluding ourselves if we think otherwise. After all, what are we even fighting for if we can’t have the freedom to challenge our country and the very world that we live in? We may hate that flag sometimes, but that’s only because we love it.
The show runs through 11/15. For more info or tickets, click here.