The evolution of American tragedy is currently on view in two remarkable productions: Arthur Miller's All My Sons at Southern Rep and Neil LaBute's The Mercy Seat at the NOCCA Black Box. Both plays are domestic dramas reverberating with the trauma of war and the guilt of homefront opportunists.
All My Sons brought Miller the 1947 Drama Critics Award and his first taste of fame. It takes place in the backyard of the Keller home "in the outskirts of an American town." As in Ibsen, however, this veneer of middle-class normalcy is doomed to shatter -- for there is a dark secret lurking behind the white picket fence.
The dialogue is often and unexpectedly funny -- as in this exchange: "You always read the book section of the paper, but never a book." "Well, I like to keep abreast of my ignorance." But the real pleasure of the evening comes from watching one of our best directors and an exceptional cast invest this neglected piece with a total conviction.
Randy Cheramie gives us a complex, fascinating Joe Keller, the poorly educated paterfamilias who built up a manufacturing business from nothing. A shipment of flawed cylinder heads produced at his factory caused the deaths of 21 U.S. fighter pilots. His foreman went to jail for this dereliction -- protesting to the end that Joe was responsible. Joe's son Chris (Benjamin Clement) fought in the war, then returned to work in the family firm. He intends to marry the convicted foreman's daughter, Ann (Jessie Terrebonne). However, Ann was the fiancee of Chris' brother, an Air Force pilot who is missing and presumed dead. Joe's wife, Kate, (Adriana Bate) cannot accept the death of her son. But she has deeper reasons than we at first realize for her denial, and those reasons are the furies that come relentlessly home to roost.
Clearly, there's a complicated, lurid back story here. But the same might be said for Oedipus Rex. And All My Sons dates from a time when the aspiration to create a classical tragedy in an American setting (most prominently championed by Eugene O'Neill) was a sort of holy grail of serious theater. However, Greek theater was highly artificial: poetic, masked, musical, and populated mostly by mythical archetypes. Can a "classical tragedy" be comfortably molded from a folksy, vernacular realism. It's a question you can argue about into the wee hours after you've seen this sterling revival (although there won't be any arguments about the fine supporting roles by Janet Shea, Bob Edes, Mason Wood and John Drap, among others).
If All My Sons partakes of an older America, LaBute's The Mercy Seat is breathtakingly "now" -- as in, hours following Sept. 11, 2001. To begin with, the cast by contrast shrinks from 10 to an economically viable two. We've moved from a backyard to a Manhattan loft apartment. And we view love, loyalty and honor through the murky filter of a troubled liaison between a younger man and his female boss. What has happened to language is also striking. It's been Pinterized and Mametized into a halting code. Every "uh" and "well" and "oh fk" is a marker that represents vast labyrinthine trails of conflict. I don't think one would access these hidden depths reading the script. That they become so lucid and real to us is a tribute to the astounding performances of Ryan Rilette and Ashley Nolan, under the inspired direction of Karl Lengel.
As the story unfolds, we come to understand that Ben (Rilette) was with his lover, Abby (Nolan), several hours earlier when the World Trade Center towers were hit. Ben should have been at Ground Zero, and he has latched onto this grotesque stroke of fate as a way to jettison his old life and start a new one. It is a moment of temptation, not unlike Joe's in All My Sons. But instead of the consequences of the act, we observe the act itself. The question you can stay up arguing about this time is whether you believe the premise. That apart, the characters are mesmerizing. Ben and Abby are a thoroughly up-to-date, Me Generation, hip pair of lovers. They are both sexier and nastier than Miller's people. Maybe that kind of sexy is inseparable from a strong tincture of nasty. In any case, what we watch is a series of intricate verbal maneuvers in a no-holds-barred battle of the sexes that would be less disturbing if it didn't cut so close to home.
NOCCA is a great new venue and has parking. There will never be a better time to become a habitue.
- Brave new world: Ben (Ryan Rilette, right), tries to convince Abby (Ashley Nolan) of their post-9/11 possibilities in Neil LaBute's The Mercy Seat, now on the boards at NOCCA/Riverfront's Nims Black Box Theatre.