Director Molly Smith's production of Arthur Miller's "All My Sons" at Washington's Arena Stage starts out so cheerfully, it could be a sitcom.
Miller writes in his autobiography, "Timebends," that when the play opened in 1947, the sunny set and "sometimes jokey atmosphere of the first ten minutes, made the deepening threat of the remainder more frightening than people were culturally prepared for."
At Arena, however, Smith and set and lighting designer Pavel Dobrusky take the playwright's deliberate contrast in tone several steps further. Miller's first Broadway success, "All My Sons" is a play already prone to overstatement.
But the design in this production is so heavy-handed that, at a climactic point, Dobrusky's verdant back yard set actually splits open to reveal what appears to be a fiery red hell below. Effects this overt tend to distance theatergoers, rather than draw them in.
And, yet, this lack of subtlety does not carry over into the fine performances that Smith has elicited from her impressive cast. We recognize the characters on stage, and that's what makes their plight so scary. Even if we're unwilling to admit they could be us, we can't deny that they could be the folks next door.
The play focuses on the Kellers, a small-town family struggling to cope with the loss of their younger son, Larry, a World War II pilot who was declared missing in action more than three years earlier. At the start of the play, Larry's fiance, Ann, is visiting the Kellers at the invitation of Larry's brother, Chris, who plans to propose to her. Though Chris' father, Joe, supports the new relationship, his mother is vehemently opposed to it, insisting Larry isn't dead.
The romantic relationship is further complicated by the fact that Ann's father was Joe's business partner and is now serving a jail sentence for shipping defective airplane parts that caused the deaths of 21 pilots during the war.
M. Emmet Walsh's Joe Keller starts out as the archetypal avuncular family man. Paunchy and balding, he has the type of easy-going manner that makes his back yard a popular gathering place for his adult neighbors as well as their playful children.
But when the play's awful secret starts to surface in the second act, this large man suddenly seems to shrink. His shoulders become stooped, his voice diminishes and his face takes on the look of a dog that's been kicked. We've been told that his partner got "smaller" in jail, that he became "a little man," and that's what appears to be happening to Joe. A subsequent scene, in which Joe briefly comes back with a pugnacious streak, only increases our pity for this flawed man, whose values have become dangerously skewed.
Joe's wife, Kate, is an equally important character and far more complex. If Joe has mistakenly put family above all else, Kate has helped him do it. The balance she has struggled to maintain is built on a fragile foundation, and Beth Fowler does an extraordinary job conveying the determined spirit that has allowed Kate to appear at once foolish (she has turned to astrology to prove that Larry's alive) and severe. She's plain-spoken to the point of rudeness in her attempt to break up Rhea Seehorn's gentle Ann and David Fendig's exceedingly, but empathetically, moralistic Chris.
Morality is an abiding concern of Miller's, and it's an issue that can be difficult to convey on stage without preaching. His latest Broadway effort, "The Ride Down Mt. Morgan," which will vie for a Tony Award on Sunday, is the story of an unrepentant bigamist. "Mt. Morgan" may not be a masterpiece, but it does have the virtue of laying out the situation without telling the audience what to think.
It's a virtue the playwright didn't trust early in his career, and it's one that -- despite deft performances -- Arena Stage's production of "All My Sons" trusts even less.
'All My Sons'
Where: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., S.W., Washington
When: 7: 30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; selected matinees at 2: 30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, noon Tuesdays and Wednesdays; through June 25