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All My Sons — People’s Light & Theatre Company

All My Sons interiorSeeing a naturalistic play by one of the masters of the form, Arthur Miller, with a cast and set that are as realistic and as authentically moving as the text, is a rarity and a treat.

For the second consecutive season, director Kamilah Forbes cast Melanye Finister, Michael Genet, and Ruffin Prentiss in a piece that harkens of Americana, and for the second consecutive season, Forbes and her ensemble, including Brian Anthony Wilson and G. Alverez Reid, brought forth brilliance, theater that not only tells a story but relates that story movingly and lets you see all of the personal dynamics underlying a plot, so that writing, exceptional as is it is in both cases, seems almost non-existent as you watch significant moments in lives unfolding.

Last season, the beneficiary of Forbes’s simple but elegantly evocative touch was August Wilson and the prolific writer’s best play, “Fences. The sparklingly sterling work of Genet and Finister continues to resonate as they not only revealed the many nuances of complex characters but showed how a distinctively story of the 1950s is just as current today.

This year, Forbes goes back to what is looking more and more like a golden age of American playwriting. Imagine living at a time when you looked forward annually to new plays by Arthur Miller, William Inge, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, Lillian Hellman, and others who may not have double “l’s” is their names. What contemporary American writer’s work measure up to theirs? No one’s.

Each of those playwrights had an individual voice. He or she also had the luxury, of which August Wilson also availed, of taking time to weave a story and allow texture and small aspects of a character’s personality to emerge. Miller, in “All My Sons,” pulls punches and withholds information, but he does so with craft and skill that adds to overall drama and springs the right surprise at the right time within the logic of his script (as opposed to just stringing the audience along until a play is almost over to reveal the tidbit that justifies having a play at all). Miller lets you meet his characters, and makes getting acquainted enjoyable, while conversation and event create opportunity that leads to the dramatic. You listen and note with admiration how he carefully plots when to drop a particular salvo. All of Miller’s plot is meticulously planned, but it never seems contrived or lazily composed.

Especially in Forbes’s competent hands. She treats her audience to observing a weekend at the Keller home that seems to be somewhere in Ohio or Western New York — Miller doesn’t say specifically; a reference to one character arriving by train from Columbus is the only clue to possible location — and everything revealed in that weekend seems to have ripened naturally so it’s just ready for full discussion, and the cathartic dramatic scenes unfold as if they are inevitable. Miller’s craft, and Forbes’s art combine to create a taut production that commands your attention, gets you involved, and excites your emotions. Even when, as with the characters, those emotions are conflicted, mitigated by an affection you may develop for someone who doesn’t deserve it. Or just might.

Miller’s play is wrung from a headline from the 1940s, when “All My Sons” was first produced. Miller’s greatness is his ability to put faces and ineluctable human traits to a story that thrives on such texture and has more effect as it depicts individuals rather than treating the central matter as if it was cut-and-dried.

Joe Keller is the perfect salesman, a different kind from Willie Loman, who Miller will dissect in his play after “All My Sons.” He does not go from town to town depending on a smile and shoeshine. He runs a business from the small town in which he lives. It’s a machine shop, a tool and dye operation, where Joe, and his one-time partner, Steve Deever, could design and manufacturer parts needed for vehicles and other machinery. During World War II, Joe’s plant had a contract for cylinder heads used in fighter aircraft.

Joe is a more natural hail-fellow-well-met type than Willie Loman. He has a handshake, a quick story, a joke, or light conversation for anyone who happens by. Joe is a jaunty likeable sort, especially as played by Michael Genet, who is as at home in the Keller backyard, and who makes you at home in the Keller backyard, as a person can be.

Genet is extraordinary is how much of a regular guy he makes Joe. His line readings never sound as if they are mandated by a script. Genet’s Joe is talking off the top of his head whether shooting the breeze with his next-door neighbors, cajoling his wife, kindly teasing neighborhood children, or dealing with the dilemma he helped to create and will haunt him until his death.

Genet is never stagy. Just as he was in “Fences,” he is the guy in the neighborhood you want to stop by and have a beer with. Troy Maxon, Genet’s “Fences” character, had anger festering under a congenial façade and directed at a specific person. His Joe Keller buries any negative feelings. He does not countenance pain and misery, even when he recounts time he spent in jail accused of a dishonorable crime or tries to wean his wife away from believing their older son, Larry, missing in action in the Asian theater of operations, is alive and destined to return to their fold. “A boy who was missing longer than he was came home to his family in Detroit just last week,” Kate Keller says in justifying her faith in her son’s survival.

Genet’s Joe Keller wants everything around him to be as normal as he is. He wants Sundays to be a day when one drinks coffee and reads the paper in his yard. He enjoys the ’40s regularity of his life. He goes off to work. Kate keeps a neat, well-supplied house. They go to dinner sometimes, but mostly she cooks her signature dishes and makes her popular and refreshing grape juice. Existence in the Keller house is steady. Kate may have pangs about her missing, assuredly deceased, son. Joe has some accusations of which he’s been exonerated to live down. In general, the Keller home is as normal as the setting in which Forbes and designer Troy Hourie depict it.

Forbes serves Miller well in preserving that patina of normality, aided by the ingenuous Genet and Brian Anthony Williams, Joilet Harris, Taysha Canales, and G. Alverez Reid as neighbors who drop by for chat or to help Joe out by running errands or picking people up at the train station.

Williams, Harris, Canales, Reid, and young Yannick Haynes are an able supporting cast that reinforces Forbes’s tone of another leisurely Sunday in a small town. Abetting Genet in setting off some dramatic fireworks are Finister, Prentiss, Margaret Ivey, and Akeem Davis.

Pardon me for taking so long to getting to the performance, or life study, of Melayne Finister.

Finister is a gem. She combines art and heart in a way that is both technically breathtaking and emotionally heartbreaking.

Last year, in “Fences,” Finister fomented a riveting scene that froze the People’s Light stage with righteous anger and pent-up feelings that were finally being expressed.

This year, her entire performance is a treasure, an authentic Thespian work of art that is genuine in context and exudes the reality of a woman who may be the loving partner of her husband but who is the direct opposite.

In most productions of “All My Sons,” the concentration is one Joe, his son, Chris, and a young man he’s known from childhood but who now resents him, George Deever. The women, though equally important, tend to get short shrift.

NealBoxKamilah Forbes is having none of that. She has crafted an ensemble production, a mise en scene in which anyone can stand out. Finister’s Kate Keller and Ivey’s Ann Deever, certainly benefit from Forbes’s more generous, more realistic approach.

From the minute Finister walks on stage, you can see something is troubling Kate, something that is gnawing inside her otherwise bright, if practical, exterior. We know she is upset that Ann, once the intended of her MIA older son, Larry, may have come to town to become engaged to her younger son, Chris.

As “All My Sons” unfolds, we realize there is more to the melancholy Kate hides underneath her role as a wife, mother, and linchpin of her neighborhood. You can tell the other women, played by Harris and Canales, look up to Kate as a role model. Ann thinks well of her too.

In Forbes’s production, that is justified because Finister’s Kate is a pillar of strength and probity. If she is adamant about Larry’s survival, she shows you her logic. Eventually, she shows you how clinging to the idea Larry is alive or at least making others acknowledge she could have the mother’s intuition she claims, can be a basis of sanity for all around her. Of course this idea of Larry’s survival is also the source of various levels of pathos that appear and evolve as “All My Sons” proceeds.

Kate is as steady as Joe, and as sociable, but there’s also something practical about her. Joe is authentic in the way he can submerge any troubles to his bright personality. Kate, especially as lived by Finister, is authentic in the way she goes about her business easily and good-naturedly but shows in her eyes and the corners of her mouth that something more than the everyday is going on, and she must at some point come to terms with it or explode.

Ann’s appearance is a catalyst for explosion. Kate loves Ann, the partner of Joe’s former partner, Steve, currently in prison for allowing some defective cylinder heads to be delivered to the Army, defective goods that caused crashes and soldiers’ deaths.

The Deevers once lived next door to the Kellers. Ann was omnipresent. Kate looked on her as the daughter she never had. She thought of Ann more literally as a daughter when Ann began dating Larry and promised to be his wife.

Though committed to Larry, Ann was also fond of Chris. In talking about her late fiancée and his late brother, Ann and Chris formed their own bond, once that is authentic and is no longer tied to memories of Larry, Kate looks at Ann’s alliance with Chris as a betrayal. If she accepts Ann’s marriage to Chris, she must admit Larry is dead or, at least, that Ann’s promise to him in null, void, and transferred to Chris.

To the credit of Ruffin Prentiss as Chris and Margaret Ivey as Ann, the relationship between the two looks authentic. The ghost of Larry may lurk in the shadow, but is not a guiding nor impeding factor. Chris and Ann have coped with and consigned to a practical life their brother and fiancée’s death. They are ready to move on as a couple that formed because of genuine understanding and affection.

Prentiss is another who makes naturalness the key to his performance. Chris is a straight arrow, one of the good guys who honors his mother and father, stresses honesty and probity in business and life, and who impresses his neighbors with his seriousness and willingness to pitch in to any group effort.

Chris is the American youth World War II was fought to bring into responsible manhood. Prentiss shows Chris living up to that promise and expectation. Everything about him is sincere. He is also trusting, believing most people, and certainly his father, lives by the code he does. There is, after all, in a wrinkle in his romance with Ann in that their fathers were partners in business, both arrested for supplying the Army with a defective product that led to death, yet Joe was cleared of criminal doing and is free while Ann’s father, Steve, languishes in jail and is considered a villain.

Listen to the neighbors, and you know they think Joe got away with the crime for which Steve was convicted. Kate has her ideas as well. Only Chris, Ann, and Ann’s brother’s George, are firm in their belief that Joe, the stronger and more dominant of the partners, is innocent, and the weaker, more frightened Steve, is the sole culprit in the cylinder debacle.

You see all of the conflicts. The beauty is how skillfully and precisely Miller reveals them. Better yet is how Forbes and cast can foreshadow an upcoming plot twist while keeping it on some a level as surprise.

George Deever has gone along with solely blaming his father for the perfidy at the machine shop. As the Kellers are about to go to dinner to celebrate Ann and Chris’s engagement, George, in the form of Akeem Davis, comes to the Kellers’ home, directly from visiting his father in prison, to thwart the union.

Whoever designed Davis’s makeup performed a minor miracle. Davis, who can still play teens and is probably in his twenties, looks old and worn as the thirtyish George. You hear he works hard as a Manhattan attorney, but his face shows more signs of care and worry than of too many hours at the office and in court.

Although George has not visited Steve in the entire three years he’s been jailed, he is converted quickly to Steve’s side once he breaks down and sees his dad.

George, and Davis, who acts with his usual intensity and authenticity, foment the ultimate dramatic confrontation, one in which Joe and Kate have to face their worst fears, and Ann and Chris have to wonder who comes closer to speaking the truth when George repeats his father’s accusations to Joe, and Joe denies them.

Margaret Ivey lets you see why everyone, including Kate, is enamored of Ann. Ivey’s performance is a little more 21st century in approach that her castmates’. She seems more contemporary in her portrayal of sophistication than a young woman of the 40s would be.

No matter. Ivey is a likeable Ann who delivers her lines superbly and, most important of all, convinces you that she loves Chris and wants to marry him for his own merits and not out of sentimentality for her relationship with Larry or the Kellers in general.

Troy Hourie’s simple yet stylized collection of well-maintained suburban houses adds to the feeling of suburban Americana. Hourie is especially clever in having the houses, with their outdoor siding, overlap in ways while making the wide Keller yard his entire downstage focal point. Marla J. Jurglanis’s costumes are right on the mark, both in terms of the ’40s period and the taste the various characters would have.

“All My Sons” runs through Sunday, October 4, at People’s Light and Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Road (Route 401 just north of Route 30), in Malvern, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday (and Wednesday, Sept. 30). Tickets range from $47 to $27 and can be obtained by calling 610-644-3500 or by visiting www.peopleslight.org.

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