Elina deSantos believes there are three things about American theater that will never go out of style: Clifford Odets, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller.
"I wanted to do a great play," explains the Santa Monica-based director, whose last stage outing--an award-winning revival of Odets' Depression-era drama "Awake and Sing!"--ran nine months at the Odyssey Theatre in 1994-95. Although she'll return to Odets later this summer with a production of "Golden Boy" for Pacific Resident Theatre Ensemble, DeSantos' current attentions are focused squarely at the Odyssey, where her high-powered revival of Miller's 1947 saga "All My Sons" opened last month.
Although the Odyssey has long been a site for new, experimental work, the popular and critical success of "Awake and Sing!" reaffirmed there was also an audience for American classics. Which couldn't please DeSantos more.
"I read new stuff all the time," she says. "I've directed 'Danny and the Deep Blue Sea' [by John Patrick Shanley] and 'Burn This' [by Lanford Wilson]--I love that play. But with new stuff, you [usually] have to fill in a lot, because the writers aren't as articulate as Williams, Odets and Miller. The connections aren't in the writing: It's all exposition, no action, nothing going on between the people. They don't know how to write a relationship! Miller, Odets and Williams use family relationships, how people are with each other, how they communicate and connect. Miller, especially, has all the great themes: father-son, the Oedipal thing, the separation of parent and child, pursuing [validation] outside ourselves."
The director says she believes that "most great stories are about love and war," and "All My Sons" qualifies on both fronts. The protagonist is World War II-era munitions maker Joe Keller, who has been acquitted three years earlier on charges of knowingly sending faulty military aircraft into battle--and 21 young pilots to their deaths. The past comes boiling into the present on this day as Joe's son Chris becomes engaged to the fiancee of Chris' older brother Larry, who'd been reported missing in action and has long been presumed dead by everyone but his mother.
"The play is really about reaching out and trying to connect," DeSantos emphasizes. "Joe Keller so much needs to connect with his son, have him love him. He's been trying to buy that love with material success. It's about people who want what we all want--to know each other. Miller says that in his book [the 1987 "Timebends"]: 'The first truth, probably, is that we're all connected, watching one another.' Chris is caught in this great love for his family; he's waited three years to have his life. He can't hurt his mother, he can't leave his father."
Chris' confusion is matched by the myopic, take-no-prisoners attitude of Joe (played by Richard Fancy), who has plowed like a bull through the scandal of his arrest and, from Day 1, vociferously maintained his innocence--in the face of many who still believe him guilty. That portrait of a family blindly bracing its patriarch against the world, the layering of denial and secrets, has caused more than one audience member to note the similarities between Joe and O.J. Simpson. The director admits there are some ironic parallels--but not on purpose. "Not everything," she says wryly, "is about O.J."
Growing up in Long Island, DeSantos was drawn to acting in elementary school; by age 11 she was teaching Bible stories ("using stories and storytelling to explore your life") at Sunday school. At Temple University in Philadelphia and Hofstra University in New York, she majored in drama; later at Hahneman Medical College & Hospital in Philadelphia, she got a graduate degree in psychology, working with emotionally disturbed preschoolers.
For the past 15 years, she has worked as a professional acting teacher and as an independent casting agent; those credits include working with Jay Leno on a special in 1986, the pilot for "Doogie Howser, M.D.," and the films "Dead Poets Society," "Witness," "Big" and "Philadelphia."
After a divorce in the late '80s, DeSantos (who has a daughter, Megan, now an English major at UCLA, and two stepchildren) left Philadelphia and settled in L.A. From 1989-92, she worked in casting for ABC's daytime division, and has continued her work with children: In 1993, she co-developed Oklahoma City's Fullerton Film Camp (where the students write, direct, shoot and edit their own movies), and last summer helped create and run a four-week, 40-member performing arts camp at her Santa Monica church of religious science, Agape.
The lines separating humanistic and artistic pursuits have always been a little blurry for her--happily so. "I'm interested in how people behave," DeSantos says matter-of-factly, "how their minds work and how we're all connected. How the past connects to the future, and how the past informs the present. All the connections."
"ALL MY SONS," Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles. Dates: Wednesdays to Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. (except next Sunday and March 10, 2 p.m.). Ends March 17. Prices: $17.50-$21.50; $5 off for student and senior rush. Phone: (310) 477-2055.