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"All My Sons" mines fresh power in Miller's classic

Susan Saccoccia | 1/27/2010, 4:54 a.m.
Dee Nelson as Sue Bayliss, Ken Cheeseman as Dr. Jim Bayliss, Diane Davis as Ann Deever, Michael Tisdale as George Deever, and Lee Aaron Rosen as Chris Keller in the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of All My Sons, playing Jan. 8 - Feb. 7, 2010 at the B.U. Theatre Mainstage. T. Charles Erickson

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Dee Nelson as Sue Bayliss, Ken Cheeseman as Dr. Jim Bayliss, Diane Davis as Ann Deever, Michael Tisdale as George Deever, and Lee Aaron Rosen as Chris Keller in the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of All My Sons, playing Jan. 8 - Feb. 7, 2010 at the B.U. Theatre Mainstage.

The magnificent Huntington Theatre Company production of Arthur Miller’s play “All My Sons” draws viewers in even before the actors step on stage.

The captivating set portrays an American Eden circa 1947. A trim wood frame house with a tidy porch overlooks a yard with two tall poplars and a young apple tree. The play opens by rupturing this scene with a film clip of the Andrews Sisters singing “Don’t Sit under the Apple Tree” spliced with thundering World War II aerial combat footage.

The video projection is the first of several hallucinatory images that evoke the nightmares haunting the occupants of the house, particularly Kate Keller, played with epic power by Karen MacDonald.

On stage at the Boston University Theatre through Feb. 7th, this production directed by David Esbjornson fully mines the tragic heft and moral urgency of the first masterpiece by playwright Arthur Miller (1915 – 2005), which debuted on Broadway in January 1947. Like Miller’s later classics, including “Death of a Salesman,” “The Crucible” and “A View from the Bridge,” this play explores characters struggling to attain the American dream at almost any cost.

Esbjornson orchestrates a superb cast as well as the wizardly stagecraft of Maya Ciarrocchi (projection design) Scott Bradley (sets), Elizabeth Hope Clancy (costumes), Christopher Akerlind (lights) and John Gromada (sound and music). The acting, costumes, sounds, sets and lighting coalesce to create a world that, like Miller’s language, finds poetry in everyday life.

In the first scene, Kate steps onto the porch at 4 a.m., jolted by thunderclaps and a dream of her son Larry, an airman lost in combat three years ago. As she watches, lightning shatters the apple tree that is his memorial. The storm hints at the gale-force passions to be unleashed in course of the next 24 hours in this tranquil yard, which becomes a battleground.

But as morning comes, instead of exploding shells, birds chirp and the nimbus of serenity returns to the set. Its muted, earth-toned palette extends to the stylishly homey attire of the characters. On this warm Sunday in August, the men are in shirtsleeves and their wives wear soft blouses, skirts and aprons.

The yard is a gathering place in the neighborhood where Joe Keller and his business partner, Steve Deever, raised their families. The Kellers’ sons, Larry and Chris, grew up with the Deevers’ children, George and Ann.

Their lives changed three years ago, with the loss of Larry and the scandal that enmeshed Joe and Steve. Their machine shop supplied faulty airplane parts that led to the deaths of 21 pilots. While Steve remains in prison, Joe got off with an alibi and, taking over the business, became a wealthy man.

As Joe Keller, Will Lyman gives a high-voltage performance pulsing with Joe’s alternating currents of desperation, anguish, charm and anger. A raspy-voiced chameleon, he can be cagey and engaging, and enjoys beguiling a local boy, Bert — a role performed alternately by Spencer Evett and Andrew Cekala — with a game of cops-and-robbers. Joe used the same charm to face down his neighbors and get them to bury their suspicions that he “pulled a fast one to get out of jail.”