To contemporary audiences, Arthur Miller’s All My Sons feels like a first draft for his more famous Death of a Salesman. The plots are different, but the themes are eerily similar: An ageing patriarch with two sons lives in a kind of fantasy world of self-denial, aided by his doting but unstable wife; when his transgressions are revealed and one son loses faith in the father’s character, the older man cannot live with the consequences. That describes Willy, Linda and Biff Loman as well as Joe, Katie and Chris Keller. It makes you wonder exactly what Miller’s hangup was with parental figures.
Although All My Sons was eclipsed by Salesman, which came out two years later, it did win the first-ever Tony Award for best play, and has been revived several times on Broadway as well as regional theaters, of which WaterTower Theatre is the latest. While Miller was one of our primary exponents of American realism in drama as filtered through the abstractions of memory, his go-to often ended up being melodrama. That’s a problem inherent in the play, from the brooding Act 2 appearance of the chief antagonist, George, to the ways characters’ convictions seem to hinge on just a word or two. The Keller family has built an emotional house of cards that gets blown over by the storm that opens the show — heavy-handed, self-important and metaphor-laden, in case you needed to be reminded.
That hand-holding is something that has always irked me about Miller’s plays, though a good production can usually grant you permission to you overlook them (or think less about them), and WTT’s production is a good one, especially with Terry Martin in the leading role of Joe. Martin is one of North Texas’ most popular acting coaches, and he proves why every time he gets onstage. He lives inside the moment of the show, never overplaying but not afraid to explore the emotional edges of his characters. Joe is a surprisingly reckless chap, courting conflict with a kingly sense of entitlement and untouchability, and, Lear-like, discovers too late the cracks in the veneer.
Katie, played by Diana Sheehan, is a familiar type from mid-20th-century American theater: The emotional wreck trying to maintain the semblance of family, and inadvertently undermining it. We see it in Linda Loman, but also Amanda Wingfield (Glass Menagerie) and Mary Tyrone (Long Day’s Journey) and others. It’s a prickly thing to do, teetering on the brink of madness, and Sheehan does a good job. The more problematic performance is Joey Folsom as George. Folsom is a talented actor, but he seems to be appearing in an entirely different production. Gloomy as an undertaker and stalking the stage more than moving across it, he feels like Bogart with his brusque, hard-nosed delivery and squinting scowl. It’s as if he were plopped right out of 1946, which isn’t bad, except than most of the other actors don’t go there, so it’s a jarring disconnect from the world director David Denson has created.
All My Sons never fully comes together as a play; it feels almost too ambitious, as if Miller couldn’t resist moralizing about money, law, lust, family and guilt in one great epic, in case he never wrote another play again. He did, of course, which bloats the stage exactly when he needs to pull back. It’s almost in spite of itself that it still makes good points amid all the sanctimony.
Mildred Will (Marcia Carroll) is another character living in a fantasy world. She’s a woman disappointed by life who has retreated her inner life of movie magazines and TV, frittering away her existence in 1970s-era New York. When she wins a contest that promises to give her a new start, she allows herself a brief window of hope … only to have it yanked out from under her.
Doesn’t sound much like a comedy, does it? And in fact, The Secret Affairs of Mildred Wild, now at the Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, isn’t really meant to be all that funny. It has a darkness to it, sandwiched by some one-liners. Think Kiss of the Spider Woman more than You Can’t Take It With You.
Neil Simon, of course, was the master of the “comedy” that ultimately proved to be quite sad, and Paul Zindel is no Neil Simon. (His two best-known plays, The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds and And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little, are more definitively dramas.) There should be a bright-line that divides her depressing reality from her idealized dream world, which simply doesn’t happen under director Frank Latson. For instance, Mildred’s husband, played by Scott Latham, is sad-sack with a bad toupee, while the actor also is supposed to be the romantic lead in Mildred’s reimagined movies (she’s always the heroine, trying gamely to cast her spouse in the heroic role he doesn’t play in her day-to-day life). But Latham seems just as dull and awkward whether he’s being Fred Astaire or Clark Gable as he is a lonely candy store salesman.
Many of the problems with the play, though, lay in Zindel’s script, which — like All My Sons — tries to do too much at once. All the action takes place over the course of about 48 hours, even though there’s no reason to pile on except to create a sense of urgency. But it feels false, and the reality of Mildred’s plight comes off as theatrical and resolvable, if anyone simply put in some effort. Her home is about to be destroyed by a wrecking ball, but she hasn’t packed a single valise, nor does anyone seem concerned about that. It’s hard to care about characters when the playwright doesn’t, either.