Wednesday, February 2, 2011

All My Sons is Exquisite

by Matthew Falduto

Iowa City - Tom Brokaw called them "The Greatest Generation." They were heroes who fought for our freedom. They sacrificed so that all of us could have a better life. They lived the American Dream. And all of that is true... to a point. One of the most powerful American plays, All My Sons, by Arthur Miller, paints a more realistic picture of this generation, illuminating the fact that like every generation, they were just people, some doing the best they could and some failing miserably. This play was the first success of Miller's career and, in many ways, it may be his best. We in Iowa City are very fortunate to have the talented artists at Riverside Theatre present this wonderful story for us.

Riverside's cast has many familiar faces, beginning with Ron Clark and Jody Hovland as Joe and Kate Keller, the parents of two grown children, Chris and Larry, who before the play begins went missing in World War II and is presumed dead. Hovland, in particular, creates a believable and heartbreaking character. Clinging to the belief that Larry is still alive, she imbues every action and every word with a palpable feeling of desperation that rises and falls depending on the moment. Clark is also strong throughout, but particularly at the end of the play when Joe's life begins to unravel. As he justifies his actions late in the play, it is only because Clark has carefully crafted a sympathetic character that we feel empathy for Joe.

Cristina Panfilio, who you may remember from Romeo and Juliet last summer, plays Ann Deever, the catalyst for the action of the show. She has excellent chemistry with all of the other actors, particularly Scot West, who portrays Chris.

West, as the surviving son, also crafts a character that allows for a big pay off during the play's dramatic ending. West's Chris is confident and self assured, certain he knows the answers to his life's major questions. Yet he seems almost too calm and too self assured and when all hell breaks loose late in the play, Chris' confidence cracks hard. Again, what's really wonderful about these portrayals is both Clark and West take us on a journey that rings true because of the echoes from early in the play.

This is also the strength of the writing. Miller's play is masterfully created; every word matters and every action builds. Director Mark Hunter has done a wonderful job bringing this story to stage. A simple and elegant set and excellent use of color and lighting set the moods of various scenes. Kudos to Scenic Designer Paul Sannerud and Lighting Designer Courtney Schmitz Watson.

Supporting characters are wonderful as well. Kristy Hartsgrove's portrayal of neighbor Sue Bayliss did remind me of her character Mrs. Van Daan from Riverside's The Diary of Ann Frank. Both characters had a certain amount of humor in them... until the one pivotal scene where Hartsgrove delivers the emotion. She's an expert at that pivot and it's clearly why she is chosen for these sorts of roles. Tim Budd as her husband is effortlessly good as usual. As neighbors Frank and Lydia Lubey, Kehry Lane and Heather Michele Lawler provide a nice contrast to the turmoil of the Keller home.

This is an excellent production from start to finish. The first weekend sold out, so I'd recommend you order your tickets soon. This is a powerful play, exquisitely rendered by an impressive cast and crew.


Anonymous said...

Riverside’s “All My Sons” was a missed opportunity. It became overly and overtly melodramatic for much of the second half of the show. The three main actors, Ron Clark, Jody Hovland, and Scot West all seemed to suffer from a methodical and therefore seemingly dishonest representation of Arthur Miller’s characters. Any anger meant yelling and contorting the face. Any sadness meant a well rehearsed grabbing of the gut, doubling over, and mugging the audience with concern and hurt written on their faces. West started out okay, but once the motivation became more and more intense, he seemed to more and more lose the character’s realism. By the end of the show, I felt I was watching a caricature of a man. Clark studded his performance with a slew of unnecessary pauses, stunting the flow at times. It seemed he was playing to the audience instead of to the other actors he was supposed to be communicating with. Hovland’s performance was energized, but her character wasn’t cohesive and left me confused. Also, I felt as though she was unable to truly be in the moment, as if she was constantly aware that she was on stage and not in her yard with her husband and son.
In the story, when the day has ended and it’s extremely late, their yelling would have woken all the smaller, neighbor characters. There was so much yelling, I wondered why the neighbors hadn’t popped by, seeing as they were all so involved in each other’s lives. And, I tell you, I would have liked to see them again. All the secondary characters were truly wonderful. Hartsgrove’s performance was expert. She made herself very accessible to the audience and I never doubted her honesty for a moment. Budd’s moment in the third act was truly beautiful in its simplicity. He simply was that doctor and had those experiences. I believe him. Lane and Lawler were fun and real as well. Lane’s sweet natured social awkwardness provided a nice opposite to the machismo and confidence of the Keller men. I could feel the earnest need to be good and right oozing off of him. I kept thinking how I knew that guy. Lawler’s smile was a lovely contrast to the doom and gloom Miller so expertly illustrates (if only they had anti-depressants then!). She sweetly provided some optimism to the story and the audience was thankful to her. The two siblings performed by Panfilio and Andrews were also a treat. Andrews artfully showed his instability. He was a pressure cooker, and the audience was on edge, wanting to know, but being afraid to see what might eventually happen. I was very happy that Panfilio was onstage with the other three main characters as much as she was. I found myself missing her presence when it was just the family. When she got upset, I felt like it was how a person might get upset. I felt like consoling her. She was real to the core and truly affected this highly critical audience member.

Anonymous said...

Review continued:
The staging seemed odd. People upstaged each other. They seemed to simply switch spots at times, like they were chasing each other, but, they didn’t actually want to catch up. The yelling got so intense at times, it seemed impossible for a director to not attend to that. People get angry without yelling all the time, and the extreme reliance on that mode of expression stripped a lot of the truth from the show. I am sensitive to the fact, however, that he had to direct the people that were employing him, which must be a conflict of interest at times, making directorial choices the uber directors haven’t made themselves.
For the technical aspects, the space was filled well. The lights were appropriate and the set was simple, a nice canvas on which to paint the story. I appreciated the lack of specific and utterly realistic set. It allowed for the attention to be focused on the performances. It was a good frame for the picture.
Riverside Theatre provides a great service to this community. They are the only professional theatre in town, actually paying their performers. The space is wonderfully intimate and the creative teamwork apparent. However, it is a shame to see how the importance of the quality of the shows has seemed to become less important. Ron and Jody are both very capable performers, but I wonder if their dedication to the business has affected their dedication to the characters they portray. Or something… They seemed to be coasting through the show. There wasn’t one moment I felt they were being honest. They were passable. They were the minimum. Being in charge of their own company gives them the incredible opportunities to play more than their share of “roles of a lifetime.” To have this is an amazing gift, one envied by any struggling actor. But, they have to recognize that and do the character, the playwright, and the audience justice. They need to start proving that they deserve that right and that they aren’t squandering such opportunities for beauty and truth to satisfy some other need.

Anonymous said...

wow. really didn't like it, huh?

Anonymous said...

Wow. Love the candor and passion(the anonymous review). The person who wrote this is obviously fed up. I have felt this way about some of the things I have seen at Riverside. I really like Kristy Hartsgrove, Martin Andrews and Tim Budd. They are all wonderful actors and I like seeing them regularly.

mags said...

WOW-Why so much anger and vitriol here? These seem to be the only negative response to this production; I can only follow my heart and the reaction of other credible respondents to the show.
Most performances are crowded from what I hear, and everyone I have talked to has enjoyed it - that is to say they have been entertained in the Greek sense that the play has moved them in extraordinary ways.
When I saw the play, I, along with the rest of audience, was deeply moved and I was unable to get out of my seat for awhile.
As for Ron Clark's and Jody Hovland's performances, I looked back over the production history and Miller's comment's on the play and it seemed like they not only followed the playwright's intent but was deeply connected to the script as published. In fact I went twice to see it. I like to see classics multiple times to gather the full intent of the script.
Why do people want to go after actors in such a mean spirited way? Have the leaders of this institution done something to you? Some angry responses seems to be tied to some personal vendetta or, perhaps some perceived slights. Is it really a play that doesn't deserve recognition?
Why can't we all support each other?
I love theater but you all have made me feel like I shouldn't identify myself . . . are anonymous posts the rule or are all just too angry to publish your names?
sign me:
a real fan that sees as much as she can.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mags:

I'm not the original reviewer at the top of this thread. However, your suggestion of "why can't we all support each other?" has nothing to do with reviews. Reviews are meant for people to offer their honest feedback to a show. As long as the feedback isn't name-calling and obscene, people can and should be honest with their compliments or their criticism. This review was critical. It was not mean-spirited. There's a difference. The original review was incredibly complimentary. This one was critical. I'd rather have that honest exchange of ideas, than have a bunch of fake puff-piece "reviews" that are too worried about offending people to be honest. I hope the discussion continues.

Anonymous said...

Well, if the first commenter is not worried about being seen as mean-spirited or genuinely unkind (really - mocking the most emotionally charged moments) how is that not "mean-spirited?"
As the artists all put their name on their work, it seems at the least disingenuous, if not simply cowardly to NOT sign your assessment of the work. They stand by their work and bravely share it. If you want us all to know how you feel about it, then have the courage to sign your name to it.
I know many blogs allow anonymity as a way to encourage candor, but it also shields angry and petty people.
On second thought, I don't care who you are. I won't be visiting this site again.

ICTheatreGuy said...

My name is Matt Falduto. I started this blog.

We've always allowed anonymous comments and I don't see that changing. To the previous anonymous commenter, if you're not going to visit this site because of an anonymous commenter, then I am sorry to see you go. I hope you are able to find information about the theatre in our community in other ways. And when you call someone cowardly for being anonymous, you may wish to not do so anonymously. Kind of undercuts your argument.

Someone asked me in real life if I would have published that anonymous commenter's "review" in our regular blog. I would not have done so and I'll tell you why. I had no problem with the majority of the review (though if you read my review, you know I disagree with it). Critiquing the actors for their choices is what we're supposed to do. However, the end of the review showed a clear bias against the institution and specifically Ron Clark and Jody Hovland. Questioning their dedication to their craft is a personal attack and would not be sanctioned in the posts of this blog. The writer talks about the Riverside Theatre as an "amazing gift... envied by a struggling actor." Riverside and the opportunities it affords wasn't a gift given to Ron and Jody. They worked for it for decades doing a lot more than acting on stage. I wonder if the struggling actor understands the amount of work that goes into creating and running a theatre. I know from experience that it's a Herculean task. Frankly, Ron and Jody have their theatre ... and some of the good roles in shows ... because they earned it the old fashioned way - through hard work.

I get asked often "How I can review shows of people I know? How can I be honest without hurting friend's feelings?" It's something I wrestled with when I started this blog. I know Ron and Jody. I know Scot and Kehry and Heather and Kristy and Tim. I've worked with some of them in shows in the past. So how do I put aside personal feelings and review their performances?

My answer is I tell the truth in a kind way and with respect. I don't expect the individuals I write about to agree with everything I write, but if I am respectful, I think they can accept the criticism. We're Iowans. We expect the truth. And we expect kindness. That's the way Iowans are raised. (And some Illinoisans, too, for that matter.)

That's where this anonymous reviewer missed the mark.

Finally, I appreciate the discussion. Don't stop now...

Anonymous said...

Please start at 3:00 and watch to the end. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that guide to Patsy R. on youtube. it is a good reminder that the theatre must be filled with sounds that provoke and disturb as well as sooth. in RT's ALL MY SONS the sounds of grief are very resonant...

Anonymous said...

I want to respond to the comment Mr. Falduto made about how Ron and Jody have worked very hard to create Riverside Theatre and deserve to play the roles they choose to play because of it. If I’m wrongly interpreting that statement then I apologize.
I think Ron and Jody are phenomenal personalities and I am truly appreciative of the theatre company they’ve created and the fact that it has the power to communicate such beautiful truths. But, simply because they have done this work, amazing though it is, doesn’t give them a blank check for whatever roles they want. Or, if it does, it doesn’t mean that they escape criticism because of their previous experiences with creating the company. And I would hope to see how they are not only the company’s originators but that they were the very best choices for those roles. This line became blurred for me.
There’s this mythical difference between community theatre, or non-professional theatre, and professional theatre. “Community” provides the exact opposite stigma than “professional.” But, it’s only a word and, in reality, it means nothing more than your individual opinion on what you’ve seen. The big difference between the two is money, or lack thereof. But, money doesn’t mean anything when it comes to the quality of a show. It’s helpful, yes, but the core of the experience are these people, who are speaking someone else’s words, who are there to be with you, the audience, in the most intimate of ways.
My frustration, and the reason I wrote the second part of the review that may seem mean spirited to some, is that Riverside is revered as the quality, while others seem to produce amateur attempts at quality. This isn’t everyone’s opinion, but it’s fairly common to this readers eyes and ears. Don’t get me wrong. No company is without it’s faults and I’ve seen a fair amount of flops on all sides. The only thing that can make a show superior, and it’s not talent I’m talking about, is the extraordinary thankfulness and excitement to have the incredible gift of being a messenger of amazing language, getting to have that honest moment with the audience where the world goes away and all that’s left is this basic idea or truth. It’s the opposite of exhibitionism or selfishness. It’s all about the moments that change you. The moment where, because of a sound a woman makes in grief that may sound embarrassing, is, in all actuality, the only thing a person with her experiences and relationships could have done in that situation, not what she perceived the character should have done, but what she had no choice other than to do… If the “grief” is forced the honesty disappears and the performance can become melodramatic as I previously mentioned. Perhaps that odd sound makes one audience member think about an estranged sister that now, they may seek to contact. Perhaps it reveals the pettiness of an argument between parent and child, and in the dark of the theatre, they silently make up. Perhaps another has recently lost someone dear to them, and that ridiculous sound makes them feel less alone. That is why theatre is so important and why it should be nothing less than eternally respected by those who seek to be a part of it. I thank the anonymous person who posted that link.

Anonymous said...

Comment continued:
As a theatre goer, I didn’t feel that from the entirety of the cast. I don’t think it was a malicious choice to not be 100% in the moment, and it’s not that I believe they are incapable of getting to that point, but I do hope that, in the future, there is enough motivation and feedback and directorial critique and whatever else is necessary to get them closer to that 100% place.
My review was more than a review. I reviewed the show and then I commented on my own review.
Mr. Falduto, you were right to call me out on that.
I want to apologize to Ron and Jody. I know the anonymity of this post and the previous posts may lessen the sincerity in yours and others eyes, but I didn’t mean to be as rude as I believe I may have come off. It was something I’d been stewing about for a few years now and it has less to do with you two than it has to do with the way you are received. If the audience loves you, that’s wonderful. I’m glad to know that theatre is becoming resurrected, and the two of you are greatly to thank for that. If I disagree with other viewers, I know you don’t fault me for my opinion, and I thank you for putting up with my expression of it.
My main point is that, no matter what theatre background a person may have, or what kind of company they are attached to, I would like to believe that they continue to strive for the organic and to better themselves, not for a rise in ticket sales or spectacle or whatever other reason you can think of… For that moment that the world melts away and all there is is the audience, the performers, and that embarrassing naked truth that makes people think.
This is what I hope to see when I’m in an audience.

Anonymous said...

To the last commentator: I agree with the second part of your statement, but not the first.

Ron and Jody started Riverside Theatre. They founded it. They got it going. They lead it. It's their baby. So yes, they CAN write a blank check for whatever roles they want to play. Whether those roles are right for them or not. If you make your own theatre company, you get to play whoever you want at that theatre company. If you don't like it, don't see their shows. Or go start your own company. Or work somewhere else.

But the second half of what you said is totally accurate. Just like all other theatre companies, Riverside is not above criticism, and if reviewers and/or audiences don't agree with the roles that Ron and Jody cast themselves in, they can disagree on this blog. Or with their wallets, by not buying tickets.

That said, Riverside Theatre has been successful for decades now. Which suggests that so far, audiences seem pretty agreeable with the work Ron and Jody do. Including the roles they choose for themselves. More power to them.

Ron Clark said...

Hello - this is Ron Clark.

First of all, I want to take this opportunity to thank Matt Falduto for establishing this forum for discussion. It is a real service to our community.
I also want to address some concerns that have been raised about Riverside Theatre, and Jody's and my place in it.
I have never before responded publicly to criticism, but there are some aspects of this discussion that I feel compelled to reply to.
It is true that Jody and I, along with our good friend Bruce Wheaton, founded the company. As its caretakers and leaders, Jody and I have done the very best we can to make it a vibrant and vital entity that serves both artists and audiences.
When we started three decades ago, we sought only to have a place to work in this community that we love. That has changed dramatically. Now, our greatest joy comes in hiring other artists and providing the most joyful and nurturing artistic home that we can.
Excellence has always, unswervingly, been our first priority. We trust our collaborators to keep us as honest as any other members of the ensemble when we are working. I can honestly say that while we do choose some work that we know will be both personally challenging and appropriate for us, we always consult with our colleagues about how they see us in the casting process. I would encourage anyone who doubts this to talk to directors such as Mark Hunter, Ted Swetz or Kristin Horton, all of whom have recently cast us in the roles they thought best fit the particular ensemble. We make it their decision. We have always accepted their choices, I hope, with grace. In fact the directors most likely to work at Riverside are the ones that push us as hard as they can.
I also wish to respond directly to the idea that Riverside Theatre is "our" theatre.
We own nothing of this company. Legally, it is a nonprofit 501-C(3) corporation. We serve at the pleasure of a 16 member board that can remove us at any time. Admittedly, as long as the company enjoys success and support, that is unlikely. It is important to know, however, that there is oversight and that the board is very actively engaged in Riverside's operations and fiduciary health. It is our greatest hope that the company will long outlive us.
But to say that the Riverside is simply Jody's and my theatre is a huge misstatement. It is a company supported by a regular staff of 8 along with several work study assistants and interns. Riverside employs over 100 artists per year. It is further supported by 100's of volunteers. While I hope the two of us have provided strong leadership, this company has a vital life of its own.
Finally, we accept criticism and acknowledge its importance. What is sad to me is that someone has "been stewing . . . for a few years now" and found no other way to deal with their feelings/thoughts than to write this comment in an anonymous way. Jody and I have always welcomed members of this community and beyond to audition for us, converse with us, and help us stay connected to area artists. I encourage the original respondent to contact me directly through Riverside's website, and I will be glad to have a respectful conversation with him/her about any concerns.
I believe in the work of all the members of the ALL MY SONS company. We all push each other every performance and turn in the most honest work we can. I cannot, of course, control how audience members perceive my performance; I simply try to do the best and most honest work that I can.
Thanks for reading, and thanks again to Matt for an opportunity to engage.

Anonymous said...

Oh My God - this is an amazing show. I cried and cried and cried.
All the company is excellent. It is so moving - how could anyone not be moved by it?
Thanks for an amazing afternoon of theatre!

Anonymous said...

Jesus Christ. ALL MY SONS was the best thing I've seen in years. Who is this guy saying it "was a missed opportunity?" You reveal that you are a petty and jealous person ("It was something I’d been stewing about for a few years now and it has less to do with you two than it has to do with the way you are received. If the audience loves you, that’s wonderful. I’m glad to know that theatre is becoming resurrected . . . ") If only you understood that theatre doesn't need to be resurrected. It has been a
part of our culture for over 2,000 years. How arrogant to assume it needs resurrection. Hovland and Clark are extraordinary and you are jealous. It's that simple. The show was phenomenal and we are lucky to have this theater as part of our community. Still have a problem? I dare you to contact Ron (or Jody) and confront them about your issues. I know you don't have the courage to do that. They live it and you don't.