THE BASICS: ALL MY SONS, a 1947 play by Arthur Miller, directed by Scott Behrend, starring Sean Cullen as Joe Keller with Lissette De Jesus, Sara Kow-Falcone, Bob Grabowski, Greg Howze, Johnny Rowe, Nick Stevens, Maria Ta, and Lisa Vitrano. Nov 9 – Dec 10 Thu – Sat 7:30, Sun 2:00 (no performance on Thanksgiving Thursday). Road Less Traveled Productions, 456 Main Street, Buffalo 14202 roadlesstraveledproductions.org (716) 629-3069
Runtime: 2 hours 15 minutes including one intermission
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: Winner of the 1947 Tony Award for Best Author (a now-defunct category), set in 1946 right after the Second World War, ALL MY SONS tells the story of Joe Keller, a successful, middle-aged, self-made man who has done a terrible and tragic thing. Joe Keller’s manufacturing company made a profit during the war by shipping defective airplane engine parts for P-40 Warhawks which led to 21 fatal crashes. Now, as Joe’s son Chris is about to marry that partner’s daughter, Ann, the affair is revisited, and his lies to achieve “The Great American Dream” are exposed.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: Just before the December onslaught of holiday fluff blankets our area stages in a blizzard of nonsense, we have three serious plays by three brilliant playwrights: THE HOMECOMING by Harold Pinter is at Torn Space, MASTER HAROLD … AND THE BOYS is at Irish Classical, and at Road Less Traveled Productions we have a damn near perfect presentation of Arthur Miller’s ALL MY SONS, Miller’s first box-office success, now an American classic for a reason. Last seen in Buffalo in 2016, the script is perfect. The play builds and builds without a single false step. When you watch this play unfold in front of you, you know you’re in the hands of a master.
The set is quite clever going from wall to wall with stockade fencing separating the Keller’s back yard from their neighbors both left and right allowing easy on and off for the actors while maintaining the illusion that probably all fence owners have that they are “safe” in their little kingdoms. The opening scene is stagecraft perfection (Collin Ranney, set; Katie Menke, sound; John Rickus, lights; Diane Almeter Jones, props; and Sarah Foote, stage manager) when on a dark and stormy night, Joe’s wife Kate (Lisa Vitrano) steps outside for some air, follows the sound of a P40 overhead, is terrified when lightning flashes, and is spooked when the wind knocks down a tree she planted to remember Larry, her older son. Larry’s been MIA for several years, yet she alone still believes that he’s alive somewhere on the planet. In his director’s notes, Scott Behrend writes about a 20-year-old-memory of seeing ALL MY SONS and at that moment “I knew that someday I would direct this classic American play when Lisa Vitrano reached the appropriate age to play the mother.” RLTP regulars who’ve seen Lisa Vitrano on stage these past two decades will certainly understand that. She’s worth waiting for. She owns every role she takes, and playing Kate is just another notch in her belt.
It was also great to see Nick Stevens back in Buffalo this time playing Chris, who is Joe and Kate’s younger son. Larry was his older brother. Like Vitrano, Stevens can bring a magnetism to any role so you can’t keep from watching him whenever he’s on stage.
Which brings us to Lissette DeJesús, who plays Ann Deever. She has come back to her home town to marry Chris Keller, but it’s complicated and conflicted. She’s also the former girlfriend of Chris’s deceased brother Larry Keller, she’s the estranged daughter of the still-imprisoned Steve Deever (Joe Keller’s former business partner), and she’s the sister of George Deever, the brother who will appear later in the play outraged after visiting his father in prison. If that all sounds like a soap opera, trust me, as it unfolds it all holds together. Ann is a difficult role as that character is surrounded by people who each desperately, achingly want something different from her. And for that reason, to me, this is a “breakout” role for DeJesús, who heretofore has been excellent but in lighter fare.
The only weak link in the production is the lead, Sean Cullen, who has an extensive resume on stage and screen, but that might be the problem. I suspect that the director may have been too enamored of working with a “star” to lay down the law when necessary. Cullen’s performance was too loud, too screechy at times, too full of sound and fury, and that’s not just my opinion. I contrast his performance with RLTP regular Peter Palmisano who played Joe Keller about seven years ago and played it more cool, more like a man keeping it all inside, and therefore more dangerous. In the movie “Vice” about Dick Cheney there’s a line: “Beware the quiet man. For while others speak, he watches. And while others act, he plans. And when they finally rest… he strikes.” That’s my idea of what Joe Keller should be like.
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!