Four-time Oscar nominee Annette Bening had not taken a role in a Broadway production since collecting a Tony Award nomination for her debut performance, more than 30 years ago, in the Tina Howe play Coastal Disturbances. But a combination of events beckoned her to return. “My youngest kid just left home to go to school,” says the mother of four with husband Warren Beatty. “So I was free to do a Broadway run, and I was sort of looking to come back.”
Then Bening got the opportunity to appear in “one of my favorite plays ever”: All My Sons, the probing drama that gave a young Arthur Miller his first hit. “He’d had a failure before that,” Bening notes, referring to The Man Who Had All the Luck. That play closed after just four performances but has since been widely reconsidered — and was in fact revived in 2002 by the same organization, Roundabout Theatre Company, and at the same venue, the American Airlines Theatre, that’s offering the new staging of All My Sons, set to begin previews April 4 and opening April 22.
Bening notes that Miller “said he was going to stop writing plays if [Sons] didn’t work. I think he took a couple of years to work on it, and he studied the well-made play and got further into classical Greek forms. It’s just so intricately constructed and magnificently written; everything in the play is so well thought out, and everyone’s reasons for doing what they do are so well formed.”
The new revival casts Bening as Kate Keller, whose elder son went missing while serving in World War II, though a few years later she is still pining for his return. Kate carries another burden: Her husband, Joe, played by Tony and Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Letts, is a businessman whose former colleague is serving time for a war-related crime — the sale of defective aircraft parts, which wound up figuring into the deaths of numerous military pilots — that Joe was also charged with initially, and may have in fact supervised.
“There are incredible contradictions in her,” Bening says of Kate. “Intellectually, I think I’ve always understood that people are complicated, but at my age, I’m just beginning to understand more fully that we all have those contradictions in some way. But very few writers can pull that off, can make us believe in someone who is such a profound paradox. I know there is enormous love in Kate — she is very loving, very generous, and she just can’t accept this loss of her son. She can’t believe that he’s gone.”
That sense of maternal connection, of course, came naturally to Bening. “I’ve known I wanted to be a mom since I was a little kid,” she says. “Before I was 7 or 8, I knew.” But if the actress hasn’t personally suffered the kind of trauma her character in Sons experiences, Kate’s predicament is eerily palpable to Bening because of events in her own family’s past.
“My mother’s family had two sons go to World War II,” Bening notes. “They were her older brothers, and they joined after Pearl Harbor. One was a Marine who lived to be in his eighties — a wonderful man, whom I knew very well. My other uncle had joined the Canadian Royal Air Force and went to England, and was posted to India — and a plane he was in went down. It’s very common in war, people dying because of mechanical failure. I see these photos of my maternal grandmother, who was just about the same age as Kate, and think what that must have been like. We can look at World War II now with a sense of distance, but it’s still very close to us.”
Revisiting the playwright who emerged in the postwar era as our moral conscience also feels right to Bening in our current social and political climate. “Right now, we’re dealing with the question of whether people feel responsible only to themselves, or do they also feel responsible to their community, to the greater good,” she says. “That’s the dilemma at the heart of this play, and in America right now. If money is everything and success is everything, if you ascribe to that, your ethical core can get challenged.”
On a brighter note, Bening, who appeared on other stages, in revivals of other classics, during her lengthy sabbatical from Broadway — from a Shakespeare in the Park production of King Lear to a Geffen Playhouse staging of Hedda Gabler — has been enjoying working with the famously witty Letts: “I can’t tell you how exciting it is to watch him and to listen and learn from him. And he’s a lot of fun.”
Asked if, once Sons completes its run, she’ll return to the boards before too long, Bening says, “Sure. I don’t know what the next one will be, but I’d love to do something else.”
Photos by Mark Seliger.