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Stage Review

The sin of the father

In Huntington’s ‘All My Sons,’ the high price of peace for a family at war with itself

By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / January 15, 2010

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‘Everything that happened seems to be coming back,’’ Kate Keller remarks early in the first act of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons.’’

On the surface, Kate is speaking merely of the fact that her dead son’s girlfriend has returned to their neighborhood right after a tree planted in his memory was blown over by the wind.

But of course that’s just the beginning. The full spectrum of “everything that happened’’ will eventually be revealed, with devastating consequences, in the Huntington Theatre Company’s gut-wrenching new production of Miller’s 1947 drama about a family’s day of reckoning with a father’s guilty secret.

Heaven knows Miller was allergic to subtlety, with a tendency to italicize his messages, but the man had few peers when it came to crafting high-stakes moral showdowns. Under the direction of David Esbjornson, a superb Huntington cast gives us Miller at his fiercest and most unflinching. During the climactic moments of “All My Sons,’’ everyone in the Boston University Theatre seemed to be holding their breath.

While this “Sons’’ is replete with period flavor, its focus on the deadly consequences of unethical business behavior during wartime makes it as timely as the latest dispatches from Iraq or Afghanistnan, or the latest news of another obscene bonus package at a bailed-out Wall Street firm.

Miller was just 32 years old when “All My Sons’’ premiered on Broadway, where it ran for 328 performances and won a Tony Award. Like “Death of a Salesman,’’ which came two years later, “Sons’’ revolves around a flawed father, a son whose hero worship sours into disillusionment, and a mother desperately trying to hold the family together.

But Joe Keller’s character flaws are far more severe - and more lethal - than those of poor, deluded Willy Loman. Joe is a successful businessman whose company manufactured airplane engine parts during World War II. When a large batch of engine cylinder heads turned out to have cracks in them, Joe knowingly sold them to the Army Air Force anyway, resulting in the deaths of 21 pilots whose P-40s crashed. Then Joe found a way to shift responsibility to Steve Deever, his neighbor and business partner, who was sent to prison.

Now, Joe’s son Chris has decided to propose marriage to Steve’s daughter, Ann. This creates reverberations in the Keller home because Ann was the girlfriend of Chris’s brother Larry, who was reported missing in action during the war.

Kate Keller fiercely opposes the marriage, because she clings doggedly to the belief that Larry is still alive. Meanwhile, Ann’s brother George has just visited their father in prison and is now traveling to see her with something urgent to tell her.

All the pieces are in place for the kind of epic confrontations that Miller wrote so well.

While Esbjornson generally abides by the naturalism of “Sons,’’ he has added a few creative touches. The play begins with giant screen images of the Andrews Sisters singing “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree,’’ a bit of gauzy Greatest Generation nostalgia that is immediately pierced by footage of warplanes roaring through a dark sky. In a brief dream sequence at the start of the third act, we see Larry in airman regalia.

Karen MacDonald delivers a knockout performance as Kate, a woman who has absorbed one hard truth (Joe’s crime) but refuses to accept another (Larry’s death). The play of emotions across MacDonald’s face is so intricate that whenever she is onstage, it is hard to take your eyes off her. When Kate learns the truth about what happened to Larry, and why, her grief has a raw, animal quality.

Will Lyman gives a shrewd performance as Joe Keller, endowing him with a folksy demeanor through which we can glimpse Joe’s shiftiness, yet conveying the sense that this man does believe his own self-justification. Diane Davis creates an alert, watchful, and expressive Ann Deever, while Lee Aaron Rosen, as Chris, lets us see how the shattering of illusions shatters the man himself.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

'All My Sons' (Photo by T. Charles Erickson) Karen MacDonald and Will Lyman star as Kate and Joe Keller in the Huntington Theatre Company's production of "All My Sons" at the Boston University Theatre.

ALL MY SONS

Play by: Arthur Miller

Directed by David Esbjornson

Sets, Scott Bradley. Lights, Christopher Akerlind. Costumes, Elizabeth Hope Clancy.

At: Huntington Theatre Company, Boston University Theatre. Through Feb. 7. Tickets $20-$82.50, 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org