What I learned. . .

Always talk to your designers.  As is often the case, I was working with designers who were new to me though not new to the Rep (Geoff Curley, sets; Frances Maggio, costumes) -- and I to them.  We were all busy, accomplished people: Geoff and Frances in their home base of Chicago and elsewhere; I with various assignments around the country. Somehow during our preparation process we failed to communicate on a couple of key issues.  Though I had approved a sketch and a groundplan of Geoff’s proposed set, I never saw a painted model or painter’s elevations.  So when we suddenly arrived at tech rehearsal time, I realized that together we had managed to create a world that was almost entirely beige; a world in which too many of Frances’s beautifully detailed WWII-era clothes disappeared against the expansive, two story exterior wall of Geoff’s splendid American Midwest frame house.

This realization prompted quick, collaborative action.  Kenton Yeager, Lighting Designer for the production and always the man you want in the lifeboat with you, completely re-gelled his plot; Frances began finding ways to alter her color palette in subtle but helpful ways; Geoff instructed the painters to add a blue wash to the exterior of the house, which Kenton was then able to expertly light for the play’s morning, afternoon, evening, and late night scenes.   I think we all breathed a collective sigh of relief by first preview performance; although I learned all over again that preparation is everything and thorough, consistent communication will save the day, no matter how much trust yourself and your collaborators.  Never go to auto-pilot or put the production vehicle on cruise control.

Getting to work on All My Sons was a thrill.  I arrived fresh off the opening of Copenhagen at Indiana Repertory Theatre, and between getting to work on both productions – each of which turned out very well – I felt like I could retire, if only I could afford to retire.  Two rich scripts, two excellent casts, wonderful production support at both theatres. . .  it was a director’s dream come true – and a good reminder that if you start with great writing, are lucky enough to land accomplished actors who are right for the roles in which you’ve cast them, your work is that much easier.  Never a walk in the park, but always a helpful head start.

Once again, the mix of new and familiar faces was elixir.  I knew Jim Baker’s work but had never directed him; and it was a privilege to get to direct Rose Pickering once again, in this our third and, as it turned out, our final outing.  Jon Daly, Lee Ernst, and Deb Staples – stalwart members of the Rep’s resident company were pillars in supporting roles; Jeannie Naughton, a friend from Utah Shakes and a regular guest actor at the Rep tackled Sue Bayliss with exactly the requisite bite and lack of sentiment; and it was a pleasure to introduce Christopher Marshall to the Rep in the role of George Deever, the avenging brother, straight out of Greek tragedy. Finding Tim Decker and Jenny McKnight through auditions in Chicago was serendipitous; I wish I could say I had much to do with Jenny’s performance as Ann Deever.  Hers was the kind of characterization that builds carefully and quietly, one step at a time, until one day you sit up straight and wide-eyed in rehearsal, wondering how on earth such a fully realized human being managed to materialize right in front of you, without your really noticing the actor’s metamorphosis.  Yet again: lucky me.

All My Sons

Milwaukee Repertory Theatre

February, 2003

Andrew Groble, Jim Baker

“The Milwaukee Repertory Theatre is presenting us with a deeply compelling production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, a trenchant drama that questions the limits of responsibility we each have for ensuring the well-being of others.

“The play’s content is as contemporary as this hour’s headline news.  Placing our sons – and daughters now – in harm’s way is the obvious parallel here.  But Miller also is writing about the abdication of corporate responsibility and the sense that ethics are adjustable to the prevailing standards of behavior.  We see in this drama, which debuted on Broadway in 1947, that these issues are timeless.

“The Rep’s production, under the direction of Paul Barnes, is taut, engrossing, and briskly paced.  Any danger of overplaying emotions and moments is thwarted by careful control and the precise acting of a fine cast.

“Jim Baker again rises to a role, portraying patriarch Joe Keller with an authentic mix of bluster, dominance, shrewdness, gregariousness, a daunting streak of self-preservation, and ultimately, fear.  Baker seems to physically grow larger when Keller is faced with a stirring threat to the life he has built.

“Rose Pickering does strong work as Joe’s emotionally volatile wife, driven to self-deceit by the pain of what she knows.  A well-cast Jenny McKnight, playing the fiancée of the Kellers’ lost son, shows she can emotionally turn on a dime while capturing the fresh sweetness of the optimistic postwar years.

“The surviving son, an idealist wracked by doubts, is played with a contradictory blend of worldliness and diffidence by Tim Decker.  It’s an interesting performance that engages the audience.

“The same can be said of the entire production.  This is passionate theater for historic times.”

     Damien Jacques

     Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

“Imagine this for a moment.  You are in the late 1940s.  World War II ended only a few years ago.  The world has entered a bold new age of peace, and the soldiers have come home to raise families.  You are in the backyard of a house that at times rings with charming joy but empty laughter, and there is one seat forever empty at the table.

“Thus begins the Milwaukee Rep’s version of Arthur Miller’s Tony Award winning All My Sons, a story of a family shattered less than they think by war and more than they can imagine by each other.  This is the story of an entrepreneurial, industrialist wartime father, and overprotective mother, and two sons; one of which never returns home from the war.

“This heart-wrenching story, directed by Paul Barnes, opened to a standing ovation, stunned audience, and a packed house on Friday, February 21 at the Powerhouse Theatre.  The cast of this show is astonishing and together will mesmerize an audience with their combined brilliance; only then to reduce many theatre buffs to tears with their devastating emotion.  This is clearly one of the best shows to open in Milwaukee in a very long time.

“This incredible cast powerfully illustrates just what unchecked, self-justified greed and personal illusions can do to a family or a person.  Here, in a backyard like any backyard, we see people like all people, like us, on a course where the layers are peeled away.  Illusion by illusion, lie by lie, the family and everyone in it are brutally stripped of every personal crutch they need in life; taking the audience right along with them.”

     Jason Alan

     The UMW Post

“Although playwright Arthur Miller is known for his masterpiece, Death of a Salesman, it is curious to note why his earlier work, All My Sons, isn’t revived more often.  To this reviewer’s mind, it has all the elements that elevateSalesman to a higher artistic level.  In its own way, this reviewer believes it is a more difficult play to do well.  However, one needn’t have worried about the production that recently opened at Milwaukee Repertory Theatre.  From start to finish, the show is mesmerizing.  That’s to the credit of the talented cast and director Paul Barnes.  

“. . . Branes reigns in [Rose] Pickering’s tendency to play characters a bit larger than life.  Kate is a key member of the household.  Like Joe, she is torn between her family and her knowledge of a terrible truth.  Beyond the Keller family, Jonathan Gillard Daly delights as the hen-pecked doctor, and Jeannie Naughton is believable in her thankless role of a nagging wife.  Despite his relatively brief appearance, Christopher Marshall shines as Ann’s brother.  He attempts to take his sister away from the Keller household, but she holds firmly to her convictions. One wonders what will become of her after the final curtain comes down.  As usual, production values are top-notch.  This is particularly true of the authentic-looking set, filled with circa World War II props, and the spot-on costumes.  The dinner dresses created for Ann are particularly worth mentioning. In sum, All My Sons strikes all the right notes.  It is a play for all seasons, and is especially relevant now, as America prepares to face another war.”

     Anne Siegel