Okay, it isn’t Death of a Salesman, to which it will forever be compared. And its form lies just this side of calculated. But Arthur Miller’s earlier play, written during World War II, still packs moral punch.
Joe Keller is two people from the start: your “everyday Joe”; and co-owner of a prosperous factory. His two-story house has a big back yard, red roses, and a white picket fence and isn’t too far from a beach.
Joe has — or had — two sons. Chris fought in the war, and lost most of a company; Larry’s been missing in action for three years.
A gale blew down Larry’s memorial apple tree last night; his former girlfriend, Ann Deever, is in town for the first time in five years. She brings bright hopes and tragic revelations.
Okay, the play is calculated — coincidences abound (not to mention a letter that, if produced in Act One, would have stopped the play cold). Miller’s linking it to Greek drama doesn’t justify the manipulations. In this sense, however, his cover story fits his theme.
During the war, Joe’s company sold cracked cylinder heads to the Air Force. Twenty-one P-40 planes crashed. Joe’s partner, Steve Deever (Ann’s father) went to prison. Joe got off. After a difficult re-entry, he’s once again a community pillar. He thinks.
By the end of Act One, Joe’s back yard is a menagerie of denial. He won’t admit his moment of “Big Dog” greed; wife Kate refuses to believe her son is dead; idealist Chris must see the best in everyone to justify fighting the war. When Chris confronts his father’s culpability, Joe evades with “see it human.”
The Kellers are a three-walled house of cards. One so much as budges, down it tumbles.
Except for Intrepid Shakespeare’s languid opening moments, in which nothing of note happens (except to reveal the concept: the evening will grow from silence to pyrotechnics), the production moves inexorably forward. Director Christy Yael-Cox has banished melodrama from the stage. Emotions stay real throughout. One downside: early on the actors tend to mumble. A high ceiling that pulls words upwards adds to this difficulty.
Compared to other Joe Keller’s I’ve seen — i.e. volatility personified — Tom Stephenson verges on underplaying him. What Stephenson does, deftly, is reveal glimpses of Joe’s internal pressure-cooker, often by trying to conceal it, until he’s overwhelmed.
Arthur Miller uses Chris as a cautionary character: blind idealism can be dangerous. Brian Mackey makes Chris forthright, but could tweak his guilt a bit more. Savvy Scopelleti (never better) keeps Kate in adamant denial. Jacque Wilke nicely moves Ann Deever from sunshine to storm. Tom Hall heads a fine supporting cast as George Deever, newly disillusioned and raging with truth.
The set by Christy Yael-Cox and husband Sean (sturdily constructed by Matt Scott) evokes a Middle-American – even American Dream — back yard. Curtis Mueller’s lighting tells the whole story — from blue skies to gathering clouds to tempest — on the scrim.
Intrepid Shakespeare Company, Clayton E. Liggett Theater, San Dieguito Academy, 800 Santa Fe Drive, Encinitas. Playing through April 19.