This story is part of a series of articles spotlighting Thespian troupes and the shows that earned them 2020 International Thespian Festival main stage recognition.

TROUPE 66 of Paola High School in Kansas returns to the International Thespian Festival main stage with All My Sons. The troupe most recently presented Celtic Tales in 2018 and Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam in 2015.

STORY

One-time neighbors Joe Keller and Steve Deever were business partners who manufactured airplane parts for American fighter pilots during World War II. When some of those parts were discovered to be defective, resulting in the deaths of many brave airmen, Steve was held accountable and sent to prison. On the other hand, Joe spent minimal time in jail, escaped culpability, and went on to run a successful company following his exoneration.

The shadow of that scandal hangs heavily over both families. During the war, the Kellers’ youngest son was declared missing in action, but three years later, his mother still hopes for his safe return. Meanwhile, their surviving son, Chris, harbors guilt over his romantic feelings for Ann, his brother’s former fiancée and Steve’s daughter. Chris knows his mother will never approve a match for him and Ann as long as she believes her other son is alive. When Ann returns home at Chris’ invitation — with her brother George, who is skeptical of Joe’s innocence, close behind her — long-held secrets are finally brought to light, changing the course of both families’ futures.

Joseph Smith and Tori Kreusch play Joe and Kate Keller in the Paola High School production of All My Sons.
Joseph Smith and Tori Kreusch play Joe and Kate Keller in the Paola High School production of All My Sons. Photo by Macayla Enman.

BACKGROUND

All My Sons was inspired by the true story of an Ohio woman who turned her father in to the FBI for selling defective airplane parts during World War II, resulting in the death of 21 fighter pilots. The script gave playwright Arthur Miller his first theatrical success when it premiered in 1947 in a Broadway production directed by Elia Kazan, launching a significant partnership between the two men.

Having experienced a disastrous flop with his Broadway debut, The Man Who Had All the Luck (which closed after just four performances), Miller resigned himself to quitting theatre should Sons face a similar fate. Fortunately for fans of the playwright’s subsequent masterpieces — The CrucibleDeath of a Salesman, and A View from the Bridge — All My Sons was a critical success. In the first year they were presented, Tony Awards went to All My Sons for best director and best author, and the story was immortalized on film a year later in 1948.

TROUPE 66’S PRODUCTION

Leslie Coats has spent more than 40 years at Paola High School, where she is the director of theatre and of Thespian Troupe 66. For her, All My Sons was the perfect example of a show waiting for its perfect cast. “I love the show, and I knew I had a group of actors who were up to tackling it,” Coats said. “The seniors in this group of students were part of a main stage performance [of Celtic Tales at the International Thespian Festival] in 2018 and really wanted to go back. I knew this script would give them a chance if we could get it to the necessary level.”

Coats teaches the script too, so many members of the cast were already familiar with the selection. “The previous year, our theatre class had read and watched a production of the show,” said Ashley Schwach, who plays Ann. “Overall, I think this was good not only for the production but also for everyone involved because we had a base understanding of how the show works. It gave us an understanding of the tone and pace of the show, which helped us throughout the process.”

Ashley Schwach and Jacob Farmer as brother and sister Ann and George Deever in the Paola High School production of All My Sons.
Ashley Schwach and Jacob Farmer as brother and sister Ann and George Deever in the Paola High School production of All My Sons. Photo by Macayla Enman.

The seniors had established close relationships, through classes, previous productions, and their trip to ITF. “We see each other all the time,” said Cooper Eidson, who plays Joe’s longtime friend Jim Bayliss. “That sense of family helped with creating a family in All My Sons.”

The Thespians’ familiarity with the script and with each other also allowed them to delve more deeply into their characters and the secrets each brings to light during the play. Schwach enjoyed “the process of tearing apart the script to pick up clues about [Ann], playing with trial and error during rehearsals, and letting myself go.” She said, “She is such an interesting character. … I found I relate to Ann in her desire to not let the past dictate her decisions. Everyone, to some extent, dwells on things that can’t be changed, and most of the time, the result is unpleasant. I understand having pain from the past live in my life, but I also understand that one has to keep moving forward rather than remaining in that mindset.”

Jacob Farmer, who plays George, connected with “the intensity behind” his character’s motivations. “I have never played such a passionate character with as high stakes as George,” Farmer said. “He needs to get his sister to agree with him or else he will have lost his entire family because of Joe Keller. In addition, the conflict that comes from liking the people who ruined his family is incredibly interesting. He loved them, but because of them, he lost his father. I connect with that contradiction in his mind.”

Coats welcomed the ways All My Sons tested her Thespians. “It’s tough stuff. There’s so much there that you never really get it,” she said. “You just keep digging. The characters are so rich, but the parts that really make the play come to life are the ones where it looks like nothing happens. Later you realize, ‘Oh, that’s what was going on.’”

Eidson appreciated how much complexity existed even in the show’s smaller roles. “They all have secrets they have to carry around,” he said. “They have to interact with each other knowing things the other doesn’t, so it’s the depth in which you can go with each character that was a big appeal for me.”

Chris Keller (Creighton Markovich) confronts his father Joe (Joseph Smith) in the Paola High School production of All My Sons.
Chris Keller (Creighton Markovich) confronts his father Joe (Joseph Smith) in the Paola High School production of All My Sons. Photo by Macayla Enman.

Spending so much time with the script — beginning with class discussions the previous year, a school run in fall 2019, and a brush-up production in advance of the Kansas Thespian Festival main stage in January 2020 — gave Schwach insights about how to sustain a performance. “Having the opportunity to work on a show for an extended period of time presents unique challenges, in the sense that you don’t have the initial passion or adrenaline to carry you through,” she said. “It’s difficult to continuously work on a show you know by heart, as opposed to running on autopilot, which is the easier option. Sometimes it seems we’ve taken steps forward, and other times backward. However, the result was well worth the work.”

Though the plot of All My Sons is intricately tied to the aftermath of World War II, all involved with Paola’s production agree the show’s broader themes transcend any specific time. Farmer says the play offers an opportunity to explore the consequences behind individual choices. “Doing the ‘right’ thing is very important in every era,” he said. “Joe believes he is doing the right thing by thinking about his family over the soldiers in the war. The play introduces a moral conflict without forcing an answer on the audience and makes them think for themselves. … I love that aspect of the story.”

The ethical questions at the heart of All My Sons also resonated with Schwach, who said the story “is about being responsible for and taking care of one another. It presents an interesting question of how far one will let the past influence the present. The constant battle between what was and what is causes the family [in the show] to crack under the surface of their love for each other.

“One of my favorite lines from the play, ‘Chris, a man can’t be a Jesus in this world,’ displays these points beautifully,” Schwach continued. “How do we care for those we love when the past continually knocks on our door and reminds us of our demons? The show remains relevant today because human faults haven’t disappeared; [they’ve] only changed forms.”

Coats finds these same questions intimately tied to current events. “[All My Sons] is so absolutely relevant it’s almost scary,” she said. “That issue of who and what we are responsible to and for is huge, and we’re going to have to figure out what that means for how we move forward when the current crisis is over. The time will come when it is over, and who will we be then? Another of my favorite playwrights, Thornton Wilder, said it this way in The Skin of Our Teeth: ‘When you’re at war, you think about a better life. When you’re at peace, you think about a more comfortable one.’”

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