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Flawed man, great play

Rubicon Theatre does full justice to 'All My Sons,' a tragedy that reaffirms personal integrity and social responsibility.

October 14, 2003|Philip Brandes | Special to The Times

VENTURA — The key to opening the emotional floodgates in the tragedy of Joe Keller, the flawed factory owner and family man in Arthur Miller's "All My Sons," is deceptively simple -- we have to love him, no matter what.

Miller's taut 1947 drama ensures that's easier said than done, of course. As evidence mounts about Joe's complicity in the cracked cylinder heads that caused 21 fighter pilot deaths during World War II, it takes an extraordinary performance to retain sympathy for him. Ventura's Rubicon Theatre surmounts that challenge -- and many others -- in a stunning revival that does full justice to one of the greatest American plays.

As Joe, George Ball proves an irresistibly affable teddy bear of a man, radiating the self-deprecating camaraderie that lulls everyone around him into suspending their common sense about the scandal for which he let his partner go to prison. When Joe begs his scrupulously ethical son Chris (Tom Astor) to "see it human," there's no way Chris (or the rest of us) can see it otherwise, thanks to Ball's heartbreaking likability.

The show's other top gun is Robin Pearson Rose as Joe's equally endearing wife, Kate. Together, they charm even the jailed partner's shattered, vengeance-minded son, George (Joseph Fuqua, who in a brief appearance viscerally demon- strates the seductive power of the Kellers).

Reprising her award-winning performance from last year's production at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre, Rose illuminates the full stakes in Kate's steadfast belief their missing elder son will still return from the war -- rather than a delusion born of weakness, it's the moral linchpin that holds her entire world together. Just as Elizabeth Franz did with her Linda Loman in the recent Broadway revival of "Death of a Salesman," Rose reveals Kate as the pillar that holds her family together -- even after 50 years, new strengths still come to light in Miller's women.

Another tough cookie in this show -- George's sister, Annie, who's taken Joe's side over her father's -- Faline England brings the perfect mix of sweetness, vulnerability and rock-solid determination to her achingly beautiful courtship with Astor's Chris. When their illusions about Joe crumble, Astor's slow-building, smoldering intensity and England's desperate efforts to salvage their love are devastating.

Also distinguishing James O'Neil's staging is the care with which he's cast the Kellers' neighbors (peripheral roles where many productions cut corners). The restless doctor (Tony Miratti), who compromised his nobler ambitions for material complacency; his relentlessly pragmatic wife (Von Rae Wood), who shows the seething resentment of Chris' lofty idealism behind her cheery mask; the clueless amateur astrologer (Brian Harwell); and his ditzy wife (Sonia Sanz) -- all further amplify the play's themes and issues. Gary Wissman's meticulously detailed backyard set and period costumes by Ann Bruice realistically anchor the time and place. Ambient surround sound and incidental choral music provide subtle enhancement, though a pivotal gunshot cue suffers from being taped.

After languishing for decades in the shadows of Miller's "Death of a Salesman" and "The Crucible," "All My Sons" has come into its own as an equally significant work.

It's no wonder that this play, reaffirming the importance of personal integrity and social responsibility in a time of glorified self-gratification, has been so frequently revived in recent years, with varying success. Opportunities to see it may be more plentiful nowadays, but few offer this much clarity and emotional impact.


'All My Sons'

Where: Rubicon Theatre Company at the Laurel, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura

When: Wednesdays, 7 p.m.; Thursdays, Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m.

Ends: Nov. 9

Price: $35-$45

Contact: (805) 667-2900

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

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