Playwright: Arthur Miller . At: Eclectic Full Contact Theatre at the Athenaeum, 2936 N. Southport Ave. Tickets: 773-935-6860; www.eclectic-theatre.com; $25 . Runs through: Nov. 17
In classical tragedy, the Gods determined the destiny of mortals. Amid the moral ambiguity engendered by two global wars in the first half of the 20th century, however, U.S. playwright Arthur Miller reinvented the traditional formula to create a hero whose suffering cannot be ascribed to divine intervention, but rather, from a misguided choice made long ago. The crime does not lie in the decision itselfanybody can make a mistakebut its perpetrator's refusal to acknowledge his error and make amends.
Our flawed human is Joe Keller, whose fortunes flourished during the recent war as his factories supplied military bases with machine parts. His older son has been missing these last three years, presumed dead by everyone but his mother, but Joe takes comfort in the knowledge that his remaining son will inherit the business he has built so diligently. On this fatal day, though, young Chris Keller will declare his intention of marrying his late brother's sweetheart, the daughter of Joe's former partner, himself currently serving a prison sentence for shipping defective engine cylinders leading to the death of 21 allied soldiers. Soon everything Joe has dedicated his life to upholding is shown to have sprung from corruption and deceit.
The downside of the "family values" that our society holds so dear is the ease with which that concept translates to fundamentally humane people providing for their own kin through the sacrifice of their fellow citizens. The moral implications inherent in this conflict is the focus of this Eclectic Theatre production, more so than Sophoclean analogs ( e.g. a neighbor's hobby of reading horoscopes as the modern-day equivalent of oracles ).
Tragedy still mandates, for its impact, a certain scope difficult to conjure on a small budget, in a spartan studio, with a predominantly young cast. Any initial college-classroom ambience evident under David Belew's direction quickly dissolves as his actors proceed to immerse themselves in their narrative with a disciplined intensity that escalates with every revelation propelling the fate of its protagonists to its inevitable conclusion. David Elliott lends to Joe's despair a dignity as poignant as it is obstinate, but it is Julie Partyka who contributes the evening's takeaway performance. Miller is well-known for reducing his female characters to weepy bystanders, but when the Keller matriarch cries out that "God does not let a son be killed by his father!", the frisson that rippled through the opening-night audience was as palpable as a literal bolt from the blue.