Stageworks is looking good. I mean this literally as well as figuratively. From a purely visual standpoint, Stageworks' plays have never been better served than over the last half-year or so. The key figure here is R.T. Williams, the set designer whose palace facade and abstract rock formations were among the most successful features of last April's Medea. Williams was back in July with the splendidly realistic beach house of Hypoxia Zone, a show as satisfying to look at as any I've ever seen in the Shimberg Playhouse of the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. And now, with his set for Arthur Miller's All My Sons, Williams has done it again: this backyard area in an upper-middle-class neighborhood is so attractive and convincing, you'll want to sit at the picnic table, then climb up onto the porch and enter the Keller house through the back door. A set like this gives an incomparable boost to a play's actors, helps us understand them not as isolated figures in a vacuum (a bare or non-specific space) but as particular human beings, shaped in part by their environment, seeing life through the lens of a certain neighborhood experience, a certain class standing. For years I've carped about under-imagined Stageworks sets, but with the advent of Williams as the company's designer, this problem is wonderfully, definitively solved.
And Stageworks' acting and directing is looking good, too. Let's talk a moment about directing. For years, actors have been telling me that Anna Brennen as a director can be difficult and harsh; and for years these same actors, following Brennen's lead, have been turning in splendid work. I don't claim to understand how these two facts fit together, but one thing is clear: Brennen is a top director, one who manages — don't ask how — to coax terrific acting out of a wide variety of thespians. And she's done it again with All My Sons. Every one of the performances in this 10-character play has strength and solidity, and several are superb. For example, there's Steven Clark Pachosa as the aging Joe Keller, an aircraft manufacturer who may or may not have had a part in the deaths of 21 airmen. Pachosa is stunningly successful in Sons, showing us all the many sides of this complicated character, from the calm and self-confident paterfamilias and the husband frightened of and humoring his wife, to the wronged scapegoat affirming his innocence, and the cornered beast flailing out at his attackers. Also fine are Kevin Whalin as Keller's idealistic son Chris, Kelly Sardinas Lambert as Chris' beloved Ann, Michael Crockett as a Keller neighbor and Chris Carlee as that neighbor's busybody wife. A powerful performance is turned in by Jack Halloway, who as Ann's brother George has the challenging task of oscillating between love and hatred of the Keller family; it's exhilarating to see George physically threaten Chris Keller at one crucial juncture, and then, appeased, become a puppy, just grateful to be noticed. And finally there's Eileen Koteles in the multidimensional part of Keller's wife Kate. If ever I've seen an actress on the verge of an artistic breakthrough, that actress is Koteles. A few weeks ago in Hypoxia Zone, she shined as comic Geena. But in Sons she plays a neurotic, desperately troubled wife, and there are moments when Koteles gives us a glimpse of anguish so deep, it's painful to even think of it. Watching Koteles is a complicated experience: most of the time you're satisfied with her performance, and then she gives you a taste of a deeper interpretation, one so much more harrowing than the one you've been witnessing, it's shocking to know that it's lurking there in all its agony. I've often been entertained by Koteles, but in Sons, for the first time, I see that she's capable of tragic grandeur. I hope I'm in the audience the night she releases this power in its fullness.
Oh yeah, the plot of the play: Joe Keller is an aircraft manufacturer whose partner has been jailed for selling defective parts to the military, parts that caused the deaths of a score of pilots. Joe himself was accused at first, but he was ultimately cleared; still, most of his neighbors think he was probably guilty. Guilty or innocent, Joe and his wife, Kate, have their own tragedy to brood over: three years before, their elder son, Larry, also a pilot (but not of a defective aircraft), disappeared during a mission. Larry's girlfriend was the jailed partner's daughter; but now, all these years later, it's Larry's brother, Chris, who's decided that he wants Ann as his bride. Kate Keller, who still believes that Larry might be alive somewhere, opposes the match; to accept it would seem to admit that her son is dead. Opposing it also is George, Ann's brother, who believes in Joe Keller's unpunished guilt. In the course of two acts, we see all these characters try to move forward in spite of the weight of the past; and then a visit from George leads to a revelation about the real culpability of Joe Keller. By the end of the play, we know exactly what Joe did, and he knows something about life on earth that didn't occur to him when the drama started.
It's a fine play, though not as perfectly constructed as Miller's two masterpieces, Death of a Salesman and The Crucible. Perhaps what's most impressive about it is its moral absolutism: Miller sees no gray areas in the problems he dramatizes, and the lesson that Joe Keller learns just before the final fadeout is presented as pure truth; disagree with it at your peril. Still, the play's in no way crude: these are complicated characters trying to navigate through a world of lies and errors, and if the final destination is a simple understanding, the journey there is credibly circuitous. One can see why the piece was Miller's first success, and one can find glimmers of the more complicated worldviews of the later plays. So don't let the moralism of All My Sons scare you away: this is a play you should know, in a memorable production.
A riddle: what do you call a show that's got top-notch acting, directing and design?
You call it a must-see.
And, more than ever before, you find it only natural that it's being presented by Stageworks.