The Montana Repertory Theatre prides itself on presenting classic American stories.
That's a broad mission statement that in theory could result in easy choices.
However, artistic director Greg Johnson and the Rep have recently picked plays that are undeniably entertaining, but also address present mood in American society in a deeper fashion.
Last year's "The Great Gatsby" addressed the hollowness of the American dream, a story written in one gilded age and staged in another.
For it's production this year, the Rep has picked another timely script: Arthur Miller's breakout play, "All My Sons."
The post-World War II family tragedy asks thorny questions about the cost of prosperity at the expense of others, yourself and your family. Those questions couldn't be more timely as the country is divided into haves and have-nots, and political parties argue whether that division is the result of a broken system or the natural expression of true capitalism.
That's a tough sell when audiences reward easy entertainment, but the Rep's briskly paced, engrossing production is well worth your time.
As Johnson likes to say, the Rep proudly casts equity actors from out of state along with students and recent graduates, and asks you tell the difference. With "All My Sons," it's difficult to tell.
New York equity actor Mike Boland effectively embodies family man Joe Keller, a small-town big shot whose business success is haunted by accusations that he sold faulty airplane parts to the U.S. military during the war.
Boland rides the fine line that the patriarch requires: He's an amiable working-man-turned-boss one minute, then a fallow bulldog, then defuses a tense moment with a dumb joke. You want to like him, even as you begin to question his motives.
He will cheerfully hand you a slice of apple, but you always remember he is the one holding the knife.
One of Joe's sons, Larry, disappeared during the war. Laurie Dawn, another equity actor, has what's probably the trickiest role: the near-hysterical, mourning mother whose belief that Larry is alive threatens to upend their family.
The other son, Chris, is set to inherit the business. Colton Swibold, a recent University of Montana graduate, has frequently played average, all-American characters and has a smile and stature that suits Chris. More important, since this is a modern tragedy, Swibold effectively portrays an idealist shaken deeply when he learns the foundation of his beliefs wasn't what it seemed. His scenes with his mother and his father in the second act are among the most dramatic in the play, and the three all ably portray a family that's only just now acknowledging how broken it is.
That arc is set in motion when he invites his true love, Anne Deever (Meg Kiley Smith of New York), for a visit. Her father was Joe's business partner, and was jailed for the crimes while Joe walked. The long-simmering confrontation is broached by the appearance of her disheveled brother George, played by Mason Wagner, a frazzled live wire who's convincingly torn between his obligations to his father and his lifelong friends.
The play, despite the serious themes, is threaded with amiable humor, some of which comes courtesy of Sam Williamson, a recent UM graduate, who steals his scenes as a neighbor, often with as little as a goofy, gawking facial expression.
UM undergrad Scoob Decker, as the neighbor Dr. Jim Bayliss, delivers a mournful address that seems resigned to the cynicism he describes.
Michael Fink's set is a lovely portrait of suburban prosperity with telltale signs that all is not what it seems. The white picket fence runs at near-surrealist slanted angles. It completely surrounds the house and the yard, but the audience-facing front fence dwindles down low to angle height, effectively cordoning off the action from the world and creating a sense of insularity that suits the intertwined families' distance from reality.
The siding on the house, too, goes missing piece by missing piece until it's in the distance.
Director Jere Lee Hodgin, in his last play before retirement, and the cast effectively keep the pace brisk and create a sense of movement during the single set, an important trait for a play so dependent on dialogue.
The Rep, which takes one play a year on a national tour, saw a heavy decline in the number of stops for "All My Sons." It's not a musical and doesn't have the name recognition of Miller's signature works such as "Death of a Salesman." But the Rep should be commended for choosing a work that's often dark and difficult, and for committing themselves to it fully. It's a tight, short production with only two acts, but it is more transporting than escapism.