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Sons and Losers

Arthur Miller's first triumph is the latest success at Live Theatre Workshop.

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This nation built on fine principles is clad in compromise. A compromise may be the petty negotiation it takes to keep a family together from day to day. Or it may be the devious deal that keeps the government from splintering, or the massive lie that keeps a business from collapsing.

American "practicality," as it's called, can become indistinguishable from social or personal corruption. Especially when it's done in the name of family unity.

So we learn from All My Sons, Arthur Miller's first successful play, a tragedy about the compromises of the common man. Except for a couple of topical jokes that now fall flat (you've got to remember, for instance, that Harry Truman started out as a haberdasher), All My Sons remains as relevant and disturbing as it was in 1947. Well directed by James Mitchell Gooden, it's enjoying a largely uncompromising run at Live Theatre Workshop.

Miller proved once and for all (building on the work of Ibsen, O'Neill and others) that tragedy befalls ordinary fools as easily as kings. The otherwise unremarkable subjects in this case are the members of the Keller family.

Joe Keller seems to have come through his trials all right. Think of "trials" literally. On appeal, he finally beat a charge of knowingly manufacturing and selling to the military defective aircraft parts that led to the deaths of 21 pilots. His partner wasn't so lucky, and now withers in prison.

Joe didn't leave his troubles at the office. Nearly three years before, his son Larry's plane--not one affected by the defective parts--went down in World War II; the body was never found. Most of the Keller family has by now adapted to Larry's death, except for Joe's wife, Kate. She insists that Larry will come home alive, and refuses to allow anyone else to behave as if he were dead.

But that's exactly what her surviving son, Chris, is doing. And so is Larry's old girlfriend, Ann--the daughter of Joe's imprisoned partner. Chris and Ann plan to marry, in the face of Kate's opposition.

Chris, unfortunately, is a young man of principle. He's come back from the war to take a position in his father's factory, and is disgusted with himself for amassing money printed with the blood of American servicemen. Yet he finds this an acceptable temporary compromise; after all, his father was cleared of wrongdoing, and he can eventually find a job elsewhere.

As one annoyed character points out, Chris makes people feel that they should be better than they are, that they have higher responsibilities. Some people may think this inspiring, but others find it threatening. In almost any other play, Chris would be an insufferable, judgmental prig, but Miller makes him one of the most likable characters on stage. Good-humored, he always looks for a person's best qualities--and sometimes finds them a bit too easily.

He's especially appealing in the open-hearted portrayal by Live Theatre Workshop's Ben Fritz, a kind and helpful grown-up Boy Scout with no inclination to become holier than thou. Yet Fritz also takes on a dangerous edge when his character is confronted by Ann's brother, George, who brings disturbing news and is determined to stop the marriage. Watch Fritz's eyes during the scene with George (the nicely conflicted Cliff Madison), and you'll see how this perfectly nice guy could develop a wartime reputation as a killer.

Speaking of killers, let's not forget Joe, who despite his acquittal is regarded around the neighborhood as a murderer. Joe shrugs it off, just as he keeps his distance from Kate's obsession with their dead son, and does what he can to smooth things over between his family and Ann's. Joe makes a point of not getting personally involved in much of anything; he drapes himself over his favorite porch chair, watches his family and neighbors bounce around his back yard, and scans the want ads, amused by but unsuccessful at understanding why people want what they want.

Joe is played by Live Theatre Workshop regular Bruce Bieszki, who in the past couple of years has been typecast as a gentle, peripheral onlooker. Now Bieszki is portraying a central character who portrays himself as a gentle, peripheral onlooker. This casting choice is more than self-referential irony; Bieszki shows new range as an undereducated man striving to be passive.

Jan Aalberts plays Kate with the necessary balance of desperation and iron will, and Leigh Ann Santillanes is a resolute, intelligent, sensitive yet unsentimental Ann. Tom Dodge, Lisa Cook, Steve McKee, Dawn Haisler and Scotty Heller are the competent supporting players.

In no way a period piece, All My Sons pinpoints a permanent landmark in American life: the intersection of corporate greed and personal illusion.

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