Loveable humans

Longtime theater veteran Joyce Henderson returns to direct an Arthur Miller classic in the park

Photo By Tom Angel

It’s like a decade long friendship blossoming into a full-blown love affair. That’s how it sounds talking to Joyce Henderson about Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, which she is directing as the second and final offering for this summer’s Shakespeare in the Park series.

“I’m in love with it,” she said during a telephone interview, “and with everyone involved!”

Henderson, a former Butte College instructor and long-time Chico theater artist now living in Alameda with her daughter, taught Miller’s play in her classes for more than 10 years.

Casting around for the serious show to balance the previous comedy, Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, Henderson wanted something with family and something with a Greek feel, her master’s subject of study. When the Miller play popped into her mind she thought, “Oh my God, I’m crazy, I want to do this.”

Crazy like a theater-fox. Henderson says she likes the show better than Miller’s Death of a Salesman. It has, she says, “perfect structure.”

That perfect structure has to do with the story of “a group of people caught up in a monstrous swindle that has caused the death of 21 Army pilots because of defectively manufactured cylinder heads,” as critic Brooks Atkinson summed it up in his review of the original New York production in 1947. Miller’s play went on to receive the New York Drama Critics Circle Award that year.

The “perfect structure” quality earned Miller’s play both knocks and praise. Atkinson called it “a piece of expert dramatic construction. … Miller has woven his characters into a tangle of plot that springs naturally out of the circumstances of life today.” Forty years later, though, the Times critic described it as a “creaky, waiting-for-the-other-shoe-to-drop exposition (supplied by phone, letter and prattling neighbors) or bald symbols (a fallen tree) or melodramatic plot twists.”

Best to arrive without expectations.

Joe Keller, the protagonist—the manufacturer of those deadly goods—has knowingly let his partner take the rap. Morally, though, like one of Ibsen’s ghosts, Keller’s secret must force itself into the light.

The play, Henderson says, “is the underbelly of the American dream,” when the country was “entering into the golden age of the ‘50s, when everything is supposed to be bright and cheerful because we have capitalism, but it takes a certain kind of responsibility all over the planet for it to really work.”

Michael Acosta plays Joe Keller, with real-life spouse Drenia Acosta playing Keller’s wife, Kate. The Kellers’ oldest son has been reported as missing in action some three years earlier. Kate clings to the unrealistic belief that he will come back. The younger son, Chris, played by Callen Reece, argues that responsibility means more than loyalty to the family.

Also in Henderson’s cast is Jocelyn Stringer as Ann Deever, who had been engaged to the Keller’s lost son and is the daughter of Keller’s scapegoated partner. A romantic interest develops between Ann and Chris.

Jeremy Votava plays Ann’s brother George. The Kellers’ neighbors are played by Quentin Colgan, Betty Burns, Steven Oberlander, Teresa Hurley, and a couple of children: Thaddeus Morris as Bert and Heather Oberlander as Lizzy.

“Everybody in the play is loveable,” Henderson says. “These are all real characters… and some people [who read or see the play] get very vehement, and they either agree with Joe that ‘family is all’ or they agree with Chris that the responsibility is bigger. It’s really interesting to see peoples’ reactions to it because you know, they’re both right, it’s just that we’re evolving. We no longer live in caves and tribes.”

The play is set in the Kellers’ back yard and slowly unfolds with Miller’s gift of dialogue, "Just real people talking," as Henderson puts it, talking their way to—as Atkinson put it in 1947—"a startling and terrifying climax."