The Curio Theatre Company is clever.
There’s no other way to put it. Sure, we can use the thesaurus and find similar words to endlessly rave about its theatrical optics, calling it ingenious, or cunning, or foxy, but why drag it out when one simple word will suffice?
Consider its current production, the first in this, its 14th season in West Philadelphia. Presenting Arthur Miller’s classic drama All My Sons, Curio wins you over from the minute you walk into the building.
That building is a church. There’s no hiding that. It stands out on the corner of 48th and Baltimore like a neighborhood treasure. So, when you walk into the building, you know what it is you are walking into…. until you don’t.
Let me explain it this way, the set for this production is not just for the actors. Nor is it just for the audience to admire. No. It’s interactive. This set is for the audience to experience and in doing so, to get transfixed by it and yes, even fooled by it.
How else do you explain the feeling of wondering if you are actually outside you know you just walked indoors? It’s virtual reality without the oversized goggles.
Credit for this goes to the vision of director Gay Carducci, who oversaw a well-madepiece of classic theatre, as well as set designer Paul Kuhn, who doubled his involvement in this production as the protagonist Joe Keller.
Actually, Carducci and Kuhn wear a third hat with Curio. Not only do they have administrative roles with the company – Kuhn is the artistic director and Carducci is the managing director – but they are two of the founding members of the company that has been bringing quality theatre to West Philadelphia since 2005.
And when you have 13 years of experience and success under your belt, you have the creative chops to pull off this stunner.
Getting back to the set, you immediately walk into the front door of the Lubeys, the next door neighbors of the Kellers, in whose front yard the entirety of the play takes place. And on your way to your seat you walk right through their living room. Literally. And it is decorated in great detail. Frank Lubey, played smartly by Steve Carpenter, is an aspiring astrologist, so why wouldn’t there be a book about the stars on his coffee table? The Lubeys have three children, none of whom appear in the show, yet as you walk out their side door into the “street” in front of the Keller home, there are shoes for little feet by the door.
And when you get onto the street is when you actually believe for a minute that you stepped back outside. The Keller home is about 15 feet tall and is a Tudor-style home with a front patio, a lawn, a wooden fence surrounding the property and a complete row of hedges lining the property separating the audience from the performance space. Peeking into the yard, you feel like Wilson W. Wilson watching the happenings of the Taylors.
The yard is wonderful, chock full of decorative touches like flower pots, giant stones, a trash can, a cement bench under a tree and even a garden gnome.
The care and attention to detail for this set was superb. Kuhn definitely went all out. They even made it rain at the beginning of the show and a lightning strike fells one of the trees before the first bit of dialogue is uttered.
It was all brilliantly conceived and was the perfect way to get everyone in the audience into the story.
I took the time to delve into the set with great detail before I got to the play itself for a reason, because even though there were some fine performances by the actors and the story was compelling and still holds up more than 70 years after it was written, there was definitely some confusion that didn’t quite translate, and ultimately distracted from a solid performance that I still recommend you go see before it closes on November 3rd.
So, the story centers around the Keller family, Joe, the bread-winning, business-owning father, his wife Kate (Trice Baldwin) and their son Chris (Chase Byrd). There is another son, Larry, who is truly the antagonist of the play despite the fact that he never makes an appearance. That because his plane disappeared during the war and he has been presumed dead for the past three-and-a-half years – although Kate still holds out hope that he is still alive.
Chris Keller, who will be taking over the business from his father (they run a company that makes parts for machines or vehicles), has invited his brother’s former fiancée Ann Deever (Nastassja Whitman) to the house to ask her to marry him. The two have been secretly dating for some time, and Chris now wants his parents approval, but is worried that his mother won’t approve because she still believes Larry is alive.
It is unearthed that Ann’s father Steve, who used to live next door to the Kellers, was Joe’s business partner and is currently serving time in prison for knowingly selling cracked engine cylinders to the military that resulted in the death of 21 pilots. Joe happened to dodge the same fate and has continued the business while Steve rots in jail.
Chris’ plan comes to a crashing halt when it is found out that Ann’s brother George (Carlo Campbell) has been to the prison to visit his estranged father and finds out the true story behind what happened and decides to go get his sister from the Kellers and bring her away from the den of lies that is the Keller residence.
The second act is when everything blows up into an anger-fueled game of accusations and finger-pointing and, well, I don’t want to give away the ending, but let’s just say it gets pretty incendiary.
The actors give fine performances. Byrd shines as Chris, who has such a wonderfully sad character arc from being such a visionary and a dreamer in the first act to crumbling into a lost soul by the end of the play. Kuhn brings life to Joe, both as the fine suburban husband and equally as the self-centered scoundrel who goes out of his way to hide his darkest secret.
Baldwin takes some time to find the essence of Kate, but she does get there, especially in the second act when we find out that she’s not just a mother who has never gotten over the loss of her son. Meanwhile Whitman does a nice job of portraying the naivety of Ann, even though she has a secret of her own that she drops like a bomb on the Kellers.
It’s not until Campbell arrives on the scene in Act Two though that the stakes really heighten, and the play really revs up by slowing down.
Maybe that’s partly based on how Miller wrote the play – with a lot of early exposition that kind of makes the show prattle along until we get to the crux of the matter. But it was also in delivery. I felt the dialogue moved too quickly in the first act. Almost as if it were a race for the actors to get their lines out. It almost made the supporting characters like Jim and Sue Bayliss (Ken Opdenaker and Aetna Gallagher) and Frank and Lydia Lubey (Carpenter and Angel Brice), seem unimportant.
But Campbell had the necessary fire to bring the play to it’s needed boil. His portrayal of the emotionally torn George was given with a deep-seeded intensity and a pace that was far slower than what the rest of the cast provided. It was in this pacing that we finally felt the uncomfortableness of the situation. The pulling back of the curtain, one agonizing inch at a time. It was when this story – which is based on an actual true story from the 1940s – finally had the action match the realism of the set.
From there the show took off like a rocket, and the end of the play was acted brilliantly, but I still couldn’t get past this one notion that lingered from the minute I arrived until the minute it ended:
When did this play take place?
I know from the original script that it’s supposed to be 1947. And the dialogue was consistent with that timeline. However, Carducci’s director’s note in the program threw me. She referenced that this could just as easily be 2018 as it was 1947. And maybe it was. If you go by the costume design by Gallagher. All of the characters were dressed in clothing that you see folks wear today. However, to be fair, there were nods to the style of the 1940s. George wore a fedora and a 40s style tie. The men dressed up in suits to go out to dinner – which doesn’t happen as often in today’s casual dining world. Dr. Bayliss wore a bow tie, although his goatee certainly screamed 2018. The newspaper that was being read by Joe and Chris at the beginning of the show was in color. Frank Lubey’s jeans looked like they were purchased from a J. Crew catalog.
Maybe Carducci’s intention was to blend the two eras, which is a neat concept, but if so, it wasn’t presented overtly enough. And if it was supposed to be present day, well thenthe dialogue definitely didn’t work at times.
I don’t know, maybe I’m picking nits with this, because the production, on the whole, was well-done, well-acted and worth your time to see it. Heck, the set is worth the price of admission alone.
I guess it’s just that when I’m inundated with an abundance of attention to detail when I walk in, I guess I’m slightly disappointed when that detail is abandoned in the conceptualization of the piece.
All My Sons plays until November 3rd. Visit Curio Theater Company for tickets and info.