Jane Page is crossing “All My Sons” off her bucket list.
It’s a story she’s always loved but never directed until Swine Palace invited her to head its production of Arthur Miller’s Tony Award-winning 1947 drama, which opens this week in LSU’s Studio Theatre.
Page heads the directing program in the University of California Irvine’s Department of Drama. Her work is known throughout the world, most recently her direction of the European premiere of Jon Robin Baitz’s 2011 drama “Other Desert Cities” for the English Theatre of Vienna, Europe’s oldest English language theater.
She made her Swine Palace directing debut in 2006 with Oliver Goldsmith’s “She Stoops to Conquer,” but this visit is different.
“I jumped at the chance to direct this play,” she said.
“We all jumped at the chance to do it,” adds Kate Skinner, who plays Kate Keller.
Page and Skinner take a few moments before rehearsal to visit in the theater’s empty audience seats. They’re joined by Terry Layman, who plays main character Joe Keller, and all three agree that Miller’s play is better crafted than most modern American plays.
“It’s a classic American drama written in three acts,” Layman said. “It’s an extremely powerful play, and it gets to the core of the American psyche.”
Miller set “All My Sons” immediately after World War II, when Joe Keller and business partner Steve Deever ran a machine shop that made airplane parts.
Deever goes to prison when it’s discovered the firm manufactured defective parts that caused the deaths of many men. Keller goes free and makes a lot of money. But his wealth comes with a price.
Keller’s son was reported missing during the war. Meanwhile, Deever’s son returns from fighting to find his father in prison and Keller walking free. The story twists and turns before a climax showing the reaction of a son to his guilty father.
“This play has things that modern writing doesn’t have,” Page said. “It seems that with modern writing, you’re striving to fill in a canvas. With Arthur Miller, you’re taking the canvas and making it bigger. And it’s an American classic, dealing with family and culture and the idea of what America is. That’s powerful.”
Layman credits Miller’s timing for this power.
“It happens at what might be the most optimistic time in American history,” he said. “The GI Bill was in place, and the baby boom was happening, and Arthur Miller is asking questions about the American dream. And it’s thrilling to be doing this play on a university campus with students who may be discovering it for the first time.”
Even more important for Page is introducing audiences to good writing in an era ruled by social media.
“You learn so much about the characters through Miller’s brilliant writing,” Page said. “The people are more than who they appear. I don’t know if we have that in the advent of social media — the notion of privacy or discretion is different.”
So, there’s no posting of a character’s every move.
“This is brilliant crafting with every element brought out as the story unfolds,” Layman adds.
Layman, a professional actor who lives in New York, has acted in previous productions of “All My Sons,” but Swine Palace’s production marks his first time to play the main character.
“I’ve seen Joe from different characters’ perspectives, but now I’m looking at the story through Joe’s eyes,” he said. “I love this character. He’s a successful, self-made man with a terrific family. I’m learning about how much fun he likes to have and how much he loves people, and I didn’t see that before.”
As for Skinner, she traveled from Chicago to play Joe’s wife, Kate.
“Kate is a survivor in her own way,” Skinner said. “The loss of her son in the war is a damaging experience that’s altered her, but she continues moving forward when others can’t.”
And just when viewers think they know Kate Keller, Miller weaves something new into the story.
“There are times you see how damaged she is,” Skinner said. “And then there are points where you see the woman she must have been.”
And Miller weaves it all together through the modern rarity of good writing.