Mister Roberts

Powertap Productions

at the Firehouse

All My Sons

Shattered Globe Theatre

By Albert Williams

Which of us has known his brother? Which of us has looked into his father’s heart?…Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone? –Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel

Do not talk lies about the dead. They are the chosen. –Thomas Heggen, Mister Roberts

In the wake of World War II, an America flushed with victory headed down the path of complacent consumerism and acquisitive insularity. But a generation of young writers sought to challenge the nation to remember what its soldiers had died for, offering a counterbalance to the jingoistic sentiments of postwar popular culture. These novelists and playwrights probed unresolved evils on the home front: racial and religious bigotry, class conflict, homophobia, and the abuse of power by those in authority. And some–such as James Jones, James A. Michener, Norman Mailer, and Gore Vidal–went on to become literary lions. But one of the most talented, Thomas Heggen, produced only one lasting work, the 1946 novel Mister Roberts. An Iowa native with strong Chicago-area connections (he took his midshipman’s training at Northwestern University and borrowed the name of one of his college friends, an Evanstonian named Chuck Roberts, for his book), Heggen based his best-seller on his own experiences as a naval officer in the Pacific. He adapted Mister Roberts for the stage with director Joshua Logan (who later turned James Michener’s wartime stories into the musical South Pacific), and in 1948 it became a Broadway hit.

Rarely revived in recent years, Mister Roberts is being presented by the small, adventurous Powertap Productions in anticipation of the play’s 50th anniversary. Coincidentally, another non-Equity off-Loop troupe, Shattered Globe Theatre, has opened the season with a golden-anniversary mounting of All My Sons, which introduced a controversial new talent named Arthur Miller to Broadway theatergoers the year before Mister Roberts premiered. Both productions convey their World War II settings before the performances with period recordings (Marlene Dietrich, Vera Lynn, Glenn Miller, et al) and, in the case of Mister Roberts, with poster reproductions in the lobby (“Keep mum, she’s not so dumb”). But these are not merely exercises in nostalgia; both companies affirm these venerable plays as vital, viable works of theater.

On the surface the two may seem to have little in common: All My Sons is an intense, Ibsen-influenced tragedy about the destruction of a postwar midwestern family haunted by shameful secrets, while Mister Roberts is a boisterous, ribald comedy about the crew of a navy supply ship in the war’s final weeks. But Karen Kessler’s thoughtful Powertap staging, which seeks to delve beneath the sunny surface of Logan’s splashy 1955 movie version, shows that Heggen and Logan’s script shares the emotional intensity and seriousness of purpose that Shattered Globe director Louis Contey reveals in All My Sons. Both Heggen and Miller were products of the Depression, which ruined their fathers financially and left the young men profoundly skeptical about American capitalism and patriarchal authority. All My Sons and Mister Roberts both explore ancient themes–sacrificial suicide, brotherly love, and father/son conflict–while expressing the urgent concern that war serve a purpose more vital than, in the words of Thomas Wolfe, “making the world safe for hypocrisy.”

Doug Roberts and Chris Keller, the heroes of Mister Roberts and All My Sons, are young men whose all-American, apple-pie exteriors barely mask their troubled longing for connection and their alienation from the business-as-usual world. Roberts is executive officer aboard a South Pacific cargo ship, drifting “from Tedium to Apathy and back [with] an occasional side trip to Monotony,” in Heggen’s words. He values the friendship of the men under his command and of his fellow officers, with whom he spends much of his time: coltish, clueless young Ensign Pulver, a would-be womanizer whose antics provide much of the play’s humor, and Doc, the ship’s world-weary dispenser of pills and philosophy. Still, Roberts stands apart; while his shipmates are thankful to be out of harm’s way, he yearns for combat–something to give his life meaning. He would have identified with Chris Keller, who’s experienced battle and finds no pleasure in the security of postwar life, helping to run his father’s factory. “There was no meaning in it here; the whole thing to them was a kind of a bus accident,” Chris says, reflecting on his return from the front. “Nobody was changed at all. It seemed to make suckers out of a lot of guys.”

Yet Chris and Roberts find themselves embroiled in a different kind of war–Chris with his father, Roberts with his commanding officer, authority figures who epitomize the soul-rotting costs of success in dehumanizing hierarchical systems. (Disdain for capitalism in All My Sons is matched by contempt for the military in Mister Roberts.) Captain Morton, inspired by Heggen’s hated CO aboard the USS Virgo, is a two-bit Bligh who refuses to grant the crew shore leave and routinely disapproves Roberts’s requests for transfer to a battleship: by making the men work nonstop under Roberts’s supervision, Morton has received a prized reward for his ship’s efficiency, a potted palm that stands under guard outside his cabin door. Meanwhile Joe Keller, Chris’s father, is guilty of war profiteering: when his factory shipped defective airplane parts to the army, 21 fliers died. But Joe has taken advantage of the postwar boom and let his partner take the rap, rebuilding his business and his reputation and retooling his factory to manufacture parts for washing machines instead of warplanes. “It’s dollars and cents, nickels and dimes; war and peace, it’s nickels and dimes,” he says. Joe justifies his action as necessary to support his family and leave a prospering business to Chris, whom he loves all the more since his other son died in the war–a flier, just like the boys whose planes crashed because of Joe’s crime.

Both All My Sons and Mister Roberts burn with outrage at offenses against the bond of brotherhood forged in battle. “They didn’t die; they killed themselves for each other,” says Chris of the men he fought with. “Everything was being destroyed, but it seemed to me that one new thing was being made. A kind of responsibility. Man for man.” Joe Keller and Captain Morton both denigrate that responsibility, the moral law for which Chris and his friends fought. Yet Keller and the captain are multidimensional, not cardboard bad guys. The conflicts in both plays are driven by Chris’s and Roberts’s realization that these flawed father figures, whom they must destroy, are no more or less human than themselves.

These works are certainly not without flaws. All My Sons sometimes suffers from heavy-handed foreshadowing and polemicism, especially in the third act as Miller drives home his critique of capitalism’s ruthlessness. And the stage version of Mister Roberts mutes some of the fascinating melancholy of Heggen’s book–in particular Roberts’s death wish, which reflects Heggen’s own suicidal tendencies–and goes overboard with the rowdy antics of the comically crude crewmen. Certainly today its scenes of sailors beating one another up and ogling nude nurses on a nearby island are unappealing, in light of the military’s seemingly endless sex scandals and atrocities like the murder of gay seaman Allen Schindler. (Director Kessler has incorporated some raunchy language from the original script that had been sanitized in later editions; she’s also restored a joke about Pulver getting “the clap” that Logan was forced to cut before the play’s Broadway opening.)

But despite their weaknesses, these are gripping works whose complicated characters and well-structured narratives are eloquently written. And while both these compact, low-budget productions have their technical limitations, they’re credible and sometimes compelling in their more intimate moments–which is where the plays’ strengths lie. The love scenes between Steve Key and Rebecca Jordan as Chris Keller and his fiancee Ann (the daughter of Joe’s imprisoned ex-partner) are riveting in All My Sons, and Key’s verbal parrying with Rich Baker as Joe and Linda Reiter as Joe’s high-strung wife establishes the ruinous costs of a life of denial. Conveying a mix of boyish eagerness and dark complexity, Key recalls the young Montgomery Clift, and the short, sad-eyed Baker captures the guilt lurking behind Joe’s folksy friendliness, though he’s not quite up to the emotional intensity of the final scenes. Nice supporting work comes from the rest of the cast, including Brian Pudil as Ann’s brother, Robin Margolis as the gigglesome girl he used to court, and Kelly Van Kirk and Eileen Niccolai as the Kellers’ shrewdly observant neighbors. Director Contey designed the tiny but believable backyard set, with its green latticed porch and flagstone terrace; Shelley Strasser-Holland’s lighting well conveys the transition from hopeful morning to dark night of despair; and Ann Kessler’s costumes are just right for the period.

In the title role of Mister Roberts, Frank Nall conveys compassion and humility but needs to probe his character’s darker, more mysterious side; Roderick Peeples’s Captain Morton is appropriately blustery yet vulnerable; Nathan Rankin is wryly understated as Doc; and Joe Dempsey brings wonderful vitality (and a comical Barney Fife tenor) to Ensign Pulver. Nice work also comes from the mostly male ensemble, especially Ned Mochel, Matthew J. O’Neill, and Dale Rivera, and a brief appearance by a wonderfully ugly bloodhound (the script calls for a goat) provides surefire laughs. Mike Curtis and Elvia Moreno’s gray shipboard set makes fine use of a limited playing area, and the actors–costumed in Jeanette deJong’s sweat-stained sailors’ blues and officers’ khakis–cleverly transform the stage from deck to cabin by hauling furniture on and off as part of their work. But a muffled sound design undercuts believability when the action involves an offstage splash or explosion–a minor but annoying drawback in a generally strong evening.

After these early successes, Miller and Heggen proceeded down drastically different paths. All My Sons proved a warm-up for the artistic, critical, and commercial triumph of Death of a Salesman, in which a disillusioned son also rejects his failed father; of course Miller went on to become one of America’s most important writers. Heggen, meanwhile, died the year after Mister Roberts’s premiere, crippled by self-doubt and writer’s block fueled by booze and barbiturates. A “probable suicide” (according to the coroner), he drowned in his bathtub–a chillingly ironic fate for the 29-year-old ex-seaman. But as Powertap’s revival amply demonstrates, Mister Roberts remains a small but potent artistic legacy. Both these plays may be rooted in the events of half a century ago, but their exhilaration at the vitality of the human spirit and their outrage at its betrayal still speak powerfully to an America wrestling with both political practicalities and the rights of human beings to live and love one another.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Mister Roberts theater still/ All My Sons theater still by J.B. Spector.