In 1944, Joe Keller and Steve Deever owned a factory that manufactured parts for military airplanes. One day, Steve discovered that some cylinders they were making had cracks in them, so he called Joe at home to ask him what to do. Joe, who claimed to have the flu, told him to weld over the cracks and ship out the cylinders, saying he'd take responsibility for the flawed parts. As a result, a few weeks later several planes crashed on the same day resulting in the deaths of 21 men.
Denounced as a murderer and traitor, Steve went to jail. Using his flu as an alibi, Joe got off scot-free.
This horrifying injustice is the nasty secret at the center of Arthur Miller's classic play All My Sons. When the story opens in 1947, Joe's wife Kate still believes their son Larry, who died in the war, will some day return home. She's furious that their second son Chris has fallen in love with Larry's old girlfriend, Ann Deever, daughter of Joe's betrayed ex-partner. Meanwhile, Ann's brother, George, has just visited their disgraced father in prison, and Steve has finally convinced him of his innocence.
The play takes place in Joe's backyard on a single day in 1947. The gradual realization by the various characters that Joe did, in fact, commit this monstrous crime generates much of the play's considerable tension.
Directed by Vic Browder, a production of All My Sons at the Vortex Theatre brings Miller's drama to tragic life. Ray Orley does a fine job in the role of Keller, an amiable man, devoted to his family and well-loved in his community, who nevertheless commits a heinous act for which he refuses to take responsibility. Scott Hartman brings an enormous amount of authority to the role of Chris, a young idealist who's incapable of acknowledging the inherent immorality of the society in which he lives. Other performances, including those by Robin Epstein as Kate and Sarah Simons as Ann, are solid enough to give All My Sons the tragic weight required by Miller's dramatic vision.
Despite a few jokes scattered through the script, this is not a cheerful play. All My Sons is thoroughly tragic, in an almost classical sense. It's also morally complex in a way that will seem quite unfamiliar to viewers weaned on mainstream television and movies.
After seeing the play, I couldn't help but wish that our current president—another amiable, well-loved man—could treat the young men and women serving in our military like his own daughters. That said, it's very difficult for anyone to place the same high value on the life of complete strangers as we place on our family and friends. Sadly, there's a little bit of Joe Keller in all of us.