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Gerald Carpenter: PCPA Theaterfest Stages ‘All My Sons’

Arthur Miller’s family tragedy runs through March 25 in Santa Maria

PCPA Theaterfest will present a new staging of Arthur Miller’s searing family tragedy All My Sons, opening Thursday and running through March 25 in the Severson Theatre in Santa Maria.

Directed by James Edmondson, with sets by Steve Henson, costumes by Tracy Ward, lighting by Anthony Palmer and sound by Irwin Appel, the production stars Peter Hadres, Kitty Balay, Quinn Mattfeld, Nicole Widtfeldt, Evans Eden Jarnefeldt, Mark Booher, Anne Guynn, Cooper Karn, Samie Carson and Thomas Apel.

All My Sons, from 1947, was Miller’s second play. His first, The Man Who Had All the Luck, had closed after only four performances. It is scary to contemplate the impoverishment of the American theater if All My Sons had bombed in the same way.

Miller had determined, if All My Sons failed, that he would “find some other line of work.” Fortunately, under Elia Kazan’s Tony-winning direction, and starring Ed Begley, Beth Miller, Arthur Kennedy and Karl Malden, the play was a great success, running for 328 performances. In addition to Kazan’s Tony for direction, Miller also won one as author.

Eventually, we would get The Crucible, A View from the Bridge and Death of a Salesman, among many other wonderful theatrical experiences.

When I described All My Sons as a “tragedy,” I wasn’t just using a big term to describe a sad story. By classical rules, a tragedy was the story of the death of a king. We have expanded our definition over the years to make it available to protagonists of every social class so long as the problem faced is of the greatest, not to say the final, seriousness, and the outcome is the result of individual action. We dilute the term when we apply it to a natural disaster or accident, no matter how lethal.

There are now many different kinds of tragedy, and Miller has dealt directly with the appropriate definitions several times. In the introduction to the book of one of his masterpieces, A View from the Bridge, Miller said that the essence of a tragedy is that the member of the audience should feel compelled to take the tragic protagonist aside and issue a desperate warning.

That describes A View from the Bridge, all right, but All My Sons is a different, and far older, kind of tragedy. Like the Oresteia of Aeschylus, or so many of the plays by Miller’s hero, Henrik Ibsen, All My Sons is a tragedy of the chickens coming home to roost. Also like the Oresteia, it takes place in the immediate aftermath of a war, among the victors. Joe Keller, a loving family man and good provider, has nevertheless committed a great crime and must atone.

Miller, one of our greatest playwrights, was rather publicly a man of the left. But his political convictions determined his loyalties, not his art.

“All you can be sure about in a political-minded writer,” Ernest Hemingway said, “is that if his work should last you will have to skip the politics when you read it.”

There is hardly anything to skip in Miller’s work, which will last as long as the United States lasts. His characters aren’t the meat puppets of an ideology or clashing historical forces — like those of Bertolt Brecht or Upton Sinclair — but thinking, feeling, choosing individuals. (Yes, even in The Crucible.)

More to the point, I think, Miller doesn’t write with a blunt instrument; he is always graceful, often elegant, frequently witty, with a great understanding of the human heart. One of my favorite lines in American theater comes from the first act of All My Sons. Joe and his son Chris are in the backyard of the Keller house, reading the Sunday paper — or parts of it. Joe reads only the want-ads, Chris the book reviews. “You’re always reading the book section,” Joe says to his son, “and you never buy a book.” Chris says, “I like to keep abreast of my ignorance.”

All My Sons plays at 7 p.m. March 8-10, March 16 and March 23; at 1:30 p.m. March 11, 14, 17-18, 21 and 24-25; and at 7 p.m. March 17 and March 24. For single tickets ($17.25 to $28) and show times, call the box office at 805.922.8313 or click here.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributor. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk or @NoozhawkNews.

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