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Theater Review: Fences

Arthur Miller's 1947 play All My Sons is painfully relevant in 2004: A mother dreams of her son dying in battle. A war profiteer rationalizes his profits. A soldier attempts to explain the difficulties of adjusting to civilian life.

One definition of a classic is that it continues to reveal layers of meaning to each new generation that confronts it; All My Sons is unquestionably an important play for audiences to see right now. That's especially true when the production is as strong as the one currently playing its final weekend at Northern Stage.

Set in "an American town" just after World War II, All My Sons tells the story of Joe Keller, a manufacturer accused of selling cracked cylinder heads to the Army Air Force -- a mistake that led to the deaths of 21 pilots. He blamed the error on his business partner, who denied the charge but was sent to prison.

Keller's son Larry, a pilot, has been missing in action for three years; his son Chris, a returned veteran, has joined his father in the family business and is hoping to marry Ann Keever, the business partner's daughter and Larry's former girlfriend. Only Keller's wife Kate refuses to believe that Larry is dead.

NS Artistic Director Brooke Ciardelli has forged a strong sense of ensemble. Except for a stilted initial scene of neighborhood banter, the actors are keenly in sync, their connections --or lack thereof -- patently clear. The production is also meticulously detailed, from Kenneth Goldstein's cozy back-porch set to Jason J. Rainone's atmospheric lighting.

I was particularly aware of how the actors used their hands. As Kate, Lisa Harrow is a study in specificity. Whether patting her lap to erase anxiety or clapping her husband's mouth shut as if to trap the words before they escape, her gestures are exact and evocative. And when Joseph Costa, as Joe, caresses a letter from his missing son, it's as if he's stroking the boy's face -- an understated and tremendously moving choice.

Costa and Harrow bring larger-than-life charisma to their roles, which alters the dynamic of the play in interesting ways. I've seen Joe and Kate portrayed more sympathetically: Joe as the blue-collar shlub who's never quite secure playing the part of successful businessman, Kate as the loving mother victimized by her husband's duplicity.

But neither of these actors chooses to play the victim. Costa is a commanding presence who looks quite at home in his double-breasted suit; Harrow is more domestic diva than suffering housewife, and a blazing force-field of attentiveness even when she's in the background. This raises the stakes; these are people used to controlling the situations around them, and when it seems that the truth is finally going to come out, they have that much more to lose.

This choice proves especially vivid with the arrival of Ann's brother George (played with coiled intensity by Michael Solomon), a lawyer who has decided that his father is telling the truth. Joe and Kate pull out all the nostalgic stops to convince him he's mistaken, reminding him of the way things used to be when he and his family lived next door.

"Stop being a philosopher, and look after yourself," exhorts Kate.

"It's good to remember those things, kid," advises Joe, reminding him that his father always had a hard time admitting his mistakes. The couple's charm offensive is nothing new, one suspects; this has always been the Kellers' way with people. The force of personality which Costa and Harrow bring to bear makes their persuasiveness quite convincing, but chilling, too, because now it's clearly a tactic driven by fear.

As Chris, Timothy Carter has perhaps the hardest role in All My Sons. Like almost everyone in the play, he has been living with blinders on, refusing to believe that Joe Keller could have had any complicity in the deaths of men like the ones Chris fought beside -- men like himself and his brother.

At the same time, he suffers from a guilt he can barely name, a sense that any money he brings in from the business is "loot, and there's blood on it." He's both an insider and an outsider, so maybe it's understandable that at first Carter's performance seems a little distant, almost too polished, even when he's making his first sweetly tentative moves toward Ann, played by Kathleen Wallace with a nice combination of softness and steely resolve.

But Carter's cool ultimately works in the play's favor; when Chris realizes the truth his father has been concealing from him, his explosion is harrowing.

There's enough foreshadowing to tip off even the most inattentive observer; one audience member near me dismissed the play as "a little predictable." But you could say the same thing about Romeo and Juliet or Oedipus. All My Sons has the inexorability of tragedy. And in Northern Stage's production it also has characters of tragic dimension -- big and timeless enough to remind us of present-day men and women who, in protecting their own interests, sacrifice the lives of others. All My Sons powerfully exposes the costs of such insularity, and the lies that drive it.

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