ams 119 Robert Weibezahl (Joe Keller), Tamarah Ashton-Coombs (Kate Keller) and Andy Justus (Chris Keller) in All My Sons.

All My Sins

Panic! Productions counts the cost of social responsibility

By Jenny Lower 01/19/2012

With little fanfare and less media coverage in some quarters than the rise and fall of Kim Kardashian’s 72-day marriage, the Iraq war came to an end in December with the withdrawal of remaining U.S. troops from Baghdad. Despite profound consequences for Iraq’s citizens and the Middle East, after nearly nine years the war has impacted most of our lives less directly than a tie-up on the 405.

All My Sons
, the second offering from newly launched, Thousand Oaks-based Panic! Productions, examines the solipsism of an individual cut off from society (or a society cut off from the world). What does a person owe to himself, his family, his country?

The year is 1947. Joe Keller (Robert Weibezahl) is a middle-class everyman who made good manufacturing airplane parts for the government during the war. Now living in a two-story house with a maid, he’s still adjusting to how war resettles the score: his son Larry, a pilot, went missing in a crash years before. Joe’s wife, Kate (Tamarah Ashton-Coombs), is convinced Larry will return, but Joe and son Chris (Andy Justus) know better. At curtain rise, Chris is preparing to propose to Larry’s former sweetheart, Ann (Rachael Pugh).

The play could be simply an affecting tale of grief and loss, but Joe is hiding a secret. During the war, he and his business partner, Ann’s father, were arrested for shipping faulty parts that resulted in the deaths of 21 airmen. Ann’s father went to prison. Joe walked away scot-free. Whether Joe is legally or morally guilty of these men’s deaths, along with the consequences of this distinction for Joe’s family and neighbors, are what drive this three-act drama that became playwright Arthur Miller’s first commercial hit.

Originally directed by Elia Kazan, Miller’s friend and collaborator, the play deplores the compromises most people make to get through life, and offers an elegy for the idealism they leave behind. Kazan would later testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee to provide names of suspected Communists — a decision that alienated many in Hollywood and ultimately ruptured Miller and Kazan’s friendship.

Joe Keller is not a bad man, just one given to self-interest and practicalism. You need a strong actor to play a weak character, and initially it appears doubtful Weibezahl is that actor. A hollowness seems to invest his portrayal of Joe, until you realize how much Joe is defined by hollowness. Alone among the characters, he desires nothing but to maintain the status quo. Weibezahl’s naturalism captures a man defined by surfaces, who believes that just because people play poker with him means they accept his word.

Act one’s extended exposition mainly lays groundwork, and the actors spend it getting their bearings and warming up for what lies ahead. But Miller and the ensemble hit their stride after intermission, with the arrival of Ann’s brother George (Patrick Rogers), a mournful, ashen-faced veteran. By the third act, Miller’s taut writing has the audience on the edge of their seats.

Ashton-Coombs is a standout as Kate Keller, but the overwrought mother’s best moments come in stillness: late at night on the porch, when the weariness of the past years finally catches up with her. Justus and Pugh offer solid performances and convincing chemistry as the son wrestling with disillusionment and a young bride trying desperately to make a life for herself, though Pugh’s hand wringing frequently distracts. Jack Bennett as the philosophical Dr. Bayliss and Rogers as George give particularly strong supporting performances.

All My Sons shows traces of Miller’s later work, including the soon-to-follow hit Death of a Salesman. In both plays Miller explores misplaced faith in the American dream among an older generation. At a time when the U.S. sees its star fading after an unparalleled period of economic boom and global influence, his is a powerful message to revisit. High-minded concepts of honor and sacrifice may seem out of step with a country that barely registered the transition from war to peacetime, but Joe Keller, perhaps more than ever, is a tragic hero for our times. Illumination, however dearly won, is worth the price.  

All My Sons through Jan. 22, Hillcrest Center for the Arts, 403 W. Hillcrest Drive, Thousand Oaks. (805) 381-1246.


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