SHELF LIFE- All mirror, no smoke<b>: </b>Miller asks the big questions

All My Sons

Live Arts through June 17


Sure, it's entertaining, but at its best, theater holds up a mirror to society, gives us pause, makes us think about ourselves, our values, our actions. It provides a chance to observe human behavior from a critical distance.  

The influential German dramatist Bertolt Brecht envisioned the theater as "a collective political meeting" where renewed self-awareness would spawn significant social reform.  

Brecht believed that art was not a mirror held up to reality, but "a hammer with which to shape it." Such seriousness of purpose is shared at least to some degree by any dramatist (or novelist or filmmaker) whose art is shaped as much by the social and political climate as by an underlying appreciation for the sublime and beautiful.

Arthur Miller, whose plays (Death of a Salesman, The Crucible) are familiar to every high school student, is in many respects Brecht's American counterpart. An outspoken cultural critic, he achieved public notoriety in the post-WWII period when public opinion was generally distrustful of political dissent. At the height of the "Red Scare," Miller had to defend himself before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

It's unfortunate that today many people know Miller for his marriage to Marilyn Monroe and not for the political controversy surrounding his art. So Charlottesville theatergoers are lucky that his first production to achieve critical and commercial success, All My Sons, is now playing at Live Arts, reminding us again of the continued relevance of his work.

All My Sons is set in a small town in the Midwest following WWII. Joe Keller, a businessman of modest intelligence but great social resourcefulness, is secure with a profitable business, a house, and a loyal family. 

But a dark history underlies this otherwise rosy portrait of the American Dream: at the height of the war, Keller sold faulty parts to the U.S. Air Force, a move that allowed him in the short term to fulfill his contracts and turn a profit, but which ultimately landed him in jail– and may have contributed to the plane crash that took his son's life.  

Keller escapes a long sentence by blaming the managerial error on his partner– who is also his friend and the father of his son's fiancée. He rationalizes his action by citing the importance of his family's financial security, and he sustains this logic through a sort of willed self-delusion. When Joe must finally admit his error, the family must confront unbearable truths about his complicity in many pilots' deaths.  

The questions the play raises are as relevant now as they were in 1947: how does greed complicate human relationships and the healthy functioning of a just society? Where does private ambition meet public responsibility?  

Live Arts artistic director John Gibson acknowledges the current relevance of the play and emphasizes the importance of paying homage to Miller, who died last year, without officially endorsing the particulars of Miller's political opinions. "We try not to come at things directly,"Gibson says of the Live Arts philosophy, "but obliquely."

Opening night Friday, June 2, seemed to be a big success, the performance filled with the same enthusiasm and purposefulness– simultaneously bighearted and earnest– that shapes Miller's legacy as a public figure. That's no small achievement in a play whose action comprises the events of a single day, and whose plot rests mostly on dialogue. A powerful effect is brought off without recourse to music or sensational plot developments.  

If seen as mirror to society, the play raises questions that are as simple as their answers are elusive: "How do we live in the world?" as cast member Kate Adamson (Ann Deever) puts it. "Do we live up to [the opportunists'] expectations, or do we live up to our own?"

Less important than the answers is the fact that we're made to consider the questions at all. Miller's larger design is clear. Joe Keller's idealistic son Chris says it best: "Once and for all you must know that there's a universe of people outside, and you're responsible to it." 

Great theater doesn't need smoke to be entertaining or compelling.