Fathers,Sons and Arthur Miller: “ALL MY SONS” at Onstage Playhouseby Pat Launer October 2, 2018
Arthur Miller’s first play on Broadway, “The Man Who Had All the Luck,” was a flop. It lasted for only four performances. He vowed that his next effort would be his final attempt at writing a commercially successful play. If that one couldn’t find an audience, he said, he’d “find some other line of work.”
Fortunately for theater history, “All My Sons” was a winner. The drama ran for 328 performances, won a Tony Award for Best Author in 1947, and established Miller as a leading voice in the American theater.
The play was inspired by a true story, brought to Miller’s attention by the mother of his then-wife, Mary Grace Slattery (first of his three spouses). She showed him a newspaper article about an Ohio-based company, Wright Aeronautical Corporation, that from 1941-1943, conspired with Army inspection officers to approve defective aircraft engines intended for military use.
Ultimately, several Wright aircraft assembly workers informed on the company and later testified before Congress. In 1944, three Army Air Force officers were convicted of neglect of duty.
In Miller’s family drama, the patriarch, Joe Keller, permits defective parts to remain in warplanes that subsequently crash during World War II and result in the death of 21 pilots. Not only does Joe fail to take responsibility, he allows his business partner to take the fall and serve the prison term.
Joe insists that he never believed the cracked aircraft engine cylinder heads would be installed, and he didn’t admit his mistake because it would have driven him out of business at age 61, leaving him with no chance to “make something” of himself and for his family, his professed highest priority in life. Gradually, as the screws tighten and the suspense escalates, Joe’s negligence is exposed through his son’s questioning of his humanity.
Partly because Miller’s story criticized and disparaged The American Dream, he became a suspect during the Red-baiting McCarthy era. When called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), Miller refused to “name names” of ostensible Communist sympathizers. His “All My Sons” director, Elia Kazan, acceded to HUAC in 1952, denouncing seven writers, including Miller. This effectively ended the careers of such (Jewish) talents as actor Morris Carnovsky and playwright Clifford Odets.
Kazan’s act ended his relationship with Miller. They didn’t speak for 12 years (though they would later collaborate again). In several subsequent works, Miller (“The Crucible,” “A View from the Bridge”) and Kazan (“On the Waterfront,” using a script originally written by Miller) took potshots at each other, alluding to the HUAC hearings and justifying their own decisions. It was Marilyn Monroe, with whom both men had affairs (and Miller later married), who reunited the two men.
Many consider Miller to be “the conscience of the country.” His plays have a strong moral core and often condemn those who act solely in self-interest, at the expense of others.
So it is in “All My Sons,” which is being produced at OnStage Playhouse, an intimate, 60-seat community theatre in Chula Vista, under the direction of James P. Darvas.
Why This? Why Now?
“I chose this play,” says Darvas, who is managing director at OnStage, “because I saw it as a bookend to my production last year at OnStage, ‘Piece of My Heart,’ which chronicled the effect of war on women. ‘All My Sons’ is about the effect of war on men, the price they pay to achieve the American Dream, the moral and emotional scars of war and the struggle for moral conscience.
“The play is so frighteningly current now,” he continues. “Certain people think they have more right to the American Dream than others right now. Those people have a new voice, and they’re speaking loudly.
“The other relevant issue is military and government contracts, and how this family has gotten entangled. Greed plays a very large role in our government, and also in the choices made by Joe and his wife, Kate. Miller was criticized for his views in the play; we’re supposed to say the American Dream is attainable for anyone who works hard.”
Darvas says he was “enthralled by this story. It looks like it’s about pursuing the American Dream, and the notion that family is everything. But Joe’s choices end up destroying his family. What’s the line between allegiance to our family and to our goals and morals? Is his success worth the 21 families who lost a child? I think a lot of people in this country would say it is. It’s a selfish outlook: ‘my happiness and the happiness of my family are the most important thing.’ There’s something inherently wrong with that standpoint. I don’t know how to fix it. My role is to tell the stories and help enhance empathy.
“The perspective I’m pulling out is more focused on the matriarch, her husband’s alliances, and the choices they made together. That was what spoke to me. It’s a 100 percent departure from productions that view her as the dutiful wife.”
In the play, Kate desperately holds onto the hope that her son, missing in action for three years, will come home.
“In my very humble opinion,” says Darvas, “it’s very obvious she knows he’s not coming home. But if he doesn’t, she knows it’s her husband’s fault. She even says to her other son, ‘If you don’t believe he’s coming back, then your father killed him.’
“She’s choosing this perspective, and she was a part of the initial decision. In my discussions with the actors, we all agreed that when Joe’s partner called to say defective parts were being produced, and Joe said to send them through, he had talked to Kate about the issue. If she’s part of that decision, it makes the show more dimensional.
“I don’t believe she thought that sending those parts would result in 21 pilots being killed. But it was only a hairline fracture, and those parts were worth $40,000 to the family. I don’t think Joe knew what the result would be either, but he threw his partner under the bus when the disaster came to light.
“If you do something that ends in catastrophe, how do you deal with that? How do you carry on? I think if people understand Kate and Joe’s relationship, and the choices they made together, it will inspire some empathy in the audience.”
Darvas, who has spent most of his theater time as an actor before transitioning into directing, grew up, like the characters, in small-town Ohio. He knows the setting well.
At OnStage, Darvas works in partnership with artistic director Teri Brown; together, they have expanded the scope of the theater, from an all-volunteer operation to offering stipends to directors, music directors and musicians. The plan is to start paying actors, stage managers and tech crew soon.
In recognition of their three decades of bringing challenging theater to South Bay, the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle honored OnStage Playhouse with the 2017 Don Braunagel Award for Outstanding Small Theatre.
“That was a humongous catalyst for change for us,” says Darvas. “It’s imperative that we take the award seriously and live up to the level of quality it suggests. We’re going for quality over quantity, which means we might reduce the season to five rather than six shows. Our long-term goal is to be a semi-professional theatre. ”
Darvas, Brown and their board are all, according to Darvas, “on board to go bigger, do more provocative work and push the envelope. And one of my missions is to have more connection to the community.”
Last May, Darvas initiated Community Conversations, a program that filled the theater with 32 high school students and 31 members of the community. They watched a free reading of a topical play – “26 Pebbles,” about the Sandy Hook school shooting.
“It was crazy-wonderful,” Darvas reports, “to have an 80-year-old in conversation with a 14-year-old about gun control. High school students have a very different perspective on hot-button issues. It’s great to watch them learn from each other.”
The next Community Conversation will center on immigration, with a reading of “Dreamers in America: The DACA Story.”
Another successful OnStage program is the Charles K. Nichols Theater Intern Program, assisted by a grant from the Chula Vista Office of Arts and Culture. The free program is available to high school/first year college students, who are given the opportunity to attend the theater’s production meetings, design/performance workshops and productions at other theaters. Participants also learn to write/perform/produce their own theatrical work.
“The original mission of the theater was to do risky productions in addition to classic works,” says Brown, who has been OnStage’s artistic director for 15 years. “I have continued maintaining that original intent: producing high-quality shows that push boundaries and make people think.
“In the past five years, one of my goals has been to do more LatinX theater,” says Brown, “and productions that will appeal to people in their 30s and 40s – and even high school and college students. That’s the future of theater. Up ’till now, despite the fact that the local community is 60 percent Latino, our primary patron base, like most theaters, has been white, middle age, middle class and mostly from outside Chula Vista.
“To maintain diversity and balance in our season,” Brown continues, “since day one, I’ve reached out to directors to see what they might be interested in directing. I asked for comedies, dramas or musicals. That in itself was somewhat controversial. My first season, someone wanted to direct the musical ‘Godspell.’ But the board said, ‘No Musicals!’ I said, ‘Please take a chance.’ And the show sold out like nobody’s business.”
Other successful – and controversial – musicals in recent years include “Spring Awakening” and “Heathers: The Musical,” which was extended repeatedly for an unprecedented 8-week run.
“We are ridiculously thankful to the Critics Circle for their support” says Brown. “That was a gift; I never thought in a million years they’d give that Braunagel Award to a community theater. I was stunned; I still am. It’s such a fantastic honor. We’re on the precipice. They had faith in us; now we have to have faith in ourselves. We have some new faces and fresh perspectives on the board, and that will help us take the next big leap.”
Arthur Miller’s “ALL MY SONS” runs at OnStage Playhouse in Chula Vista, from September 21 to October 13.
Tickets and information: 619-422-RSVP (422-7787); onstageplayhouse.org.