NEW YORK — The creative forces involved in the new TV production of Arthur Miller's 40-year-old "All My Sons" believe its message about the individual's responsibility to society is more relevant today than ever.
"Frankly, I've been fairly astonished by the power of the whole thing," Miller said after previewing the first television production of his play. "Aside from being a marvelous TV production, it stands with the very best of the stage productions of the play I have ever seen."
The two-hour drama opens the sixth season of public television's "American Playhouse" series tonight (8 p.m., Channel 50; 9 p.m., Channels 28 and 15). It stars James Whitmore, Michael Learned and Aidan Quinn.
"It's as though we have found a brand new work, rather than just revived a classic," said "American Playhouse" executive producer Lindsay Law. "I think the play reminded us of the feelings we're all living with at this moment in this country."
It was 40 years ago, nearly to the day, that Miller's play opened on Broadway, with a cast that included Karl Malden, Arthur Kennedy and Ed Begley. Directed by Elia Kazan, the production marked Miller's first real success as a playwright, but also met with protests from World War II veterans and other groups, who labeled its universalist appeal "communist propaganda."
Although there have been numerous stage productions of the play around the country, and a 1948 Universal film version starring Edward G. Robinson, those responsible for bringing about the television production expressed astonishment at the freshness and topicality they found in the play.
"I'd read the play twice before, once in high school, and once about 10 years ago, and both times it struck me as a family play," Law recalled. Then last year, looking for something to fill a last-minute gap in the new "Playhouse" season, he read it again.
"This time," he said, "it struck me as an indictment of the kind of selfishness and greediness we see more and more in this society, whether it's cheating on Wall Street or the Yuppie sensibility or Lt. Oliver North (and the Iran/ contra arms scandal)."
At the heart of Miller's play is the question of whether allegiance to personal gain should prevail at the expense of principles.
Director Jack O'Brien, speaking by phone from his resident post at San Diego's Old Globe Theater, recalled being devastated at rereading "All My Sons" at Law's request last summer.
"I heard a voice so clear and simple and straightforward, it was as though it had been written yesterday," he said, adding, "For those of us who feel an incredible loss of integrity and humanity, whether from the actions of government executives or individuals, (the play) resonates."
Law enlisted Michael Brandman as producer and got Universal to release the film rights to "All My Sons." Miller initially agreed to "input" into the project, Law said, and wound up participating at rehearsals and during production on sound stages in Toronto last fall.
Aidan Quinn, who provides the voice of responsibility in the play as the character Chris, said that he accepted the role after reading only 20 pages of the play. "It immediately struck me as modern and typical," he said.
At 27, Quinn is the same age Miller was when he wrote the play.
"I have been brought up in a society where you were taught that money and success are the primary goals, and at the same time, that you were supposed to have principles," he said. "But as you grow up, you see that the two don't always coincide."
"Unfortunately," playwright Miller said, "I think the play will probably always be topical."