Death of a salesman?s sons

In our post-Enron, post-WorldCom era — with Vice President Dick Cheney’s Halliburton piling up huge profits from no-bid contracts in Iraq and New Orleans while children of poverty enlist and die — a dramatization of World War II profiteering, corruption, family loyalty and greed seems as immediate as the evening news.

Thus Arthur Miller’s All My Sons (1947) easily reaches across six decades to deliver its gut-punch to a 21st-century audience.

The story is that of two families, intertwined by business and romance. Joe Keller’s manufacturing plant produces cylinder heads for P-40 aircraft. Steve Deever is his deputy manager. There’s a problem with production, and more than 100 defective heads are knowingly delivered to the military, resulting in engine failures and the death of upward of 20 U.S. pilots in one week.

Knowingly, but who knew?

When the play opens, Keller’s older son, Larry, is missing, reportedly dead in battle, and Deever is in prison, convicted with Keller of scamming the government with defective merchandise. Keller’s younger son, Chris, is bent on marrying Larry’s one-time fiancee, Ann — who happens to be Steve Deever’s daughter — while Keller’s wife is in full-tilt denial, believing that Larry will miraculously reappear.

While Keller is exonerated on appeal, it is far from clear that he is innocent of deceit. Yet when told that he, too, should be doing time, Keller insists, “Who worked for nothin’ in that war? When they work for nothin’, I’ll work for nothin’. Did they ship a gun or a truck outta Detroit before they got their price? Is that clean? It’s dollars and cents, nickels and dimes; war and peace, it’s nickels and dimes, what’s clean? Half the Goddam country is gotta go if I go!”

Miller’s theme was drawn from war news — a manufacturer had knowingly shipped defective tank parts, which led to the deaths of many soldiers. In Iraq, the same sad story plays out for Marines issued defective body armor.

And yet Artistic Director Hans Meyer notes that All My Sons — presented by immediate theatre project at NC Stage Company through June 25 — is not an anti-war play.

“The men who have come back — and those who haven’t — are portrayed as patriots and heroes,” he says. “But the horrors they experienced in war are never glossed over, either. What is of chief concern to Miller, I think, is the attitudes of those at home, and how the consequences of war extend much farther than the battlefield. It is a play about responsibility, really, and how complicated that concept can be.”

Meyer and Producing Director Willie Repoley met at Guilford College, colloquially known as Quaker Tech, but directed and performed in Chicago and Atlanta en route to Asheville, where they co-founded itp. This is the company’s second season.

Repoley tells Xpress: “Theater is magic in a sense that it is truly real, or, it can be. I have always been interested in storytelling, and this very visceral and potentially personal form of storytelling is the mode I have found speaks most to me.”

He says that “Arthur Miller had many things on his mind when he wrote All My Sons … but the current war in Iraq was most certainly not one of them. This is sometimes hard to remember when reading or seeing his post-WWII play; his stage direction indicating that the date be ‘August of our era’ remains as true now as 59 years ago.”

The post-WWII period saw America in recovery mode. The major playwrights hadn’t commenced the experimentation that would radically shift theater in the following decade, though Tennessee Williams was beginning to experiment with less naturalistic settings and dramatizations in The Glass Menagerie (1945) and A Streetcar Named Desire (1947). All My Sons was the play that put Miller on the cultural map — he won the New York Drama Critics Award for 1946-47. His next effort, Death of a Salesman (1949), would cement his reputation in the highest echelon of 20th-century dramatists. Like Salesman, the emphasis in Sons is on personal responsibility versus societal obligations of nurturing and support. Both plays dance with the question: “What’s the profit in gaining the world and losing your soul?”

There’s no easy way out of this familial dilemma, and the play never lets its characters or the audience off the hook.

In an off-stage appearance that speaks directly to our own xenophobic era of illegal wiretaps and secret prisons, Miller was perhaps the most prestigious writer to be called before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. Miller refused to bend to Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s anticommunist witch hunt, naming no names. The playwright clearly took personal responsibility very personally.

immediate theatre project presents All My Sons at North Carolina Stage Company (Walnut Street across from Zambra) as part of the venue’s Catalyst Series. The play runs through Sunday, June 25: Thursday-through-Saturday shows are at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday’s matinee is at 2 p.m. Tickets are $10-$15. One special free performance happens at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 21 (reservations are highly recommended). See or call 350-9090.

About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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