Larry Keller

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‘If Larry were alive he wouldn’t act like this…’ (Joe, Act Three)


Even though Larry is never seen in the play, he’s an essential character to the story. He symbolizes the past. He symbolizes the war. He symbolizes the height of idealism. The revelation that he purposefully crashed his plane brings the ‘fake past’ crashing to a halt for the Kellers. It’s impossible for the characters to continue on as they have with this revelation. They must address the truth and move forward. Joe chooses to kill himself rather than face prosecution. Kate finally let’s the past go in a fashion: “Don’t take it on yourself. Forget now. Live.” (Act Three)


It’s interesting to think about how the present would have turned out for these characters if Larry had lived. Given how he ended his life, there is certainly the notion that of all the characters in the play he would not have let a suburban life get in the way of the truth.


Activities and Exercises


  • Create a picture of what Larry looks like. Is he solidly built like Chris? Completely different? We know he’s an idealist, how does that translate to his physical presence?
  • In groups create a specific memory of Larry for each character.
  • Imagine a confrontation between Larry and Joe. How would it go?






The Neighbours

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‘I resent living next door to the Holy Family.’ (Sue, Act Two)


Jim, Sue, Frank and Lydia are the neighbours on either side of the Kellers. Frank and Lydia have been around the Kellers a long time. Frank knows Annie, and Lydia used to date George. Jim and Sue moved into the Deevers’ old house. The Deevers left after Steve Deever was sent to jail.


The purpose of Jim and Sue is clear in the play. If the Kellers are the fake perfect suburban family, Jim and Sue are the real deal. Jim is weary and aware of what he’s given up for money. Sue is bitter and angry all the time even though she has exactly what she wants. The two clearly have no love for each other anymore. They both know Joe is guilty and choose to keep quiet.


What is the purpose of Frank and Lydia? What do they offer to the landscape? They are well off – Frank’s house is paid for – and have a lot of leisure time. Frank sees movies and does horoscopes. Lydia designs hats. They always seem happy, if a little dim. Neither has a true sense of reality or the real world.


Activities and Exercises


  • Improv conversations between Jim and Sue, and Frank and Lydia. How do they talk about the Kellers behind closed doors?




George Deever

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‘You know in your heart Joe did it.’ (Act Two)

George is the messenger character. He’s the one who brings the bad news. The truth. The other characters try to placate him, woo him with the past, seduce him with grape juice and food. And because the pull of the past is so strong in the Keller’s back yard, George almost falls for it. As a character, George is like that. It seems that he’s always falling for something, rather than leading the way. This the first time he’s stood up. When Kate slips and tells the truth when she should have told a lie, George rises up. He delivers his truth, which starts the collapse of the Keller’s perfect suburban life.

Activities and Exercises

  • Come up with a list of lines of dialogue describing George before we meet him. Describe George physically based on your list. Compare and contrast your description with his actual entrance.
  • Ann does not seem overly surprised during her phone call at George’s behaviour, more irritated as if he’s acted like this before. Later on Chris says that George ‘dives’ into things without thinking. Improv a moment between Ann and George, where George’s behaviour is excitable and over the top. George is the older of the two, why does it seem that he is the younger?
  • George is described as being on the ‘edge of self-restraint.’ In groups work on George’s lines in Act Two that begin, “My life turned upside down since them.” Each person gets a small chunk. As each individual speaks, they are held down by the other members of the group. How does it feel to perform like that? Which lines make more sense when they are restrained and which need to be out of control?
  • Create a scene between George, Chris and Larry before the war. George states in the play that he looked up to Chris. What would that look like in action? Did George follow the brothers around like a puppy? Did he imitate them? Did the brothers ignore him? Tease him? Bully him?
  • What was George’s relationship with Lydia like before the war? Was he embarrassed of her? Improv a conversation between them.

Questions To Answer

  1. What made George decide to go and see his father?
  2. Why does George believe him now, when he didn’t before?
  3. Did George decide at the same time as Ann not to talk to their father, or did he do it because she did?
  4. What was George’s experience during the war?
  5. What was he like before the war in comparison to what he’s like now? He mentions that Lydia ‘laughed too much.’ How does that reflect his character?
  6. What is his relationship with Ann like?
  7. Why did George decide to go into law? Why is he disillusioned with law now?
  8. How does George view the world?




Ann Deever

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‘You know? It’s lovely here. The air is sweet.’ (Act One)


It would be easy to mistake Ann for a sweet innocent girl. She’s described as gentle, and the characters go on and on about her pretty looks. The first thing she does on her first entrace is laugh. She spends three weeks salary on a dress, on a whim. Growing up has not made Ann bitter, as it has Sue, nor has it made her desperate. She wants to marry Chris for love and companionship – not for his money.


But Ann is a strong woman. She knows want she wants and she is not easily swayed. Not only that but she displays a strength of purpose in getting it. Ann never once wavers in Kate’s questioning about her feelings for Larry. She is not waiting for him to come home. No matter how hard Kate tries, Ann will not be bullied. Ann has brought her letter from Larry, a letter no one knows about, and when all else fails in persuading Kate, she brings it out when ethe Keller’s are at their lowest.


Further, Ann has disowned her father. She is completely convinced of his guilt and feels no guilt herself in refusing to see or talk to him: ‘It’s wrong to pity a man like that. Father or no father, there’s only one way to look at him.’ (Act One)


Sweetness and steel are wonderful contrasting characteristics in a character.


Activities and Exercises


  • Ann has a very clunky line in Act one – ‘Gosh, those dear dead days beyond recall.’ It’s clearly purposeful, Miller wouldn’t leave it in by accident. But why is it there? Why does she refer to the days as ‘dear dead’ and why are they beyond recall? Why is it important for her to say she can’t recall them? Give everyone a chance to say this line and explain why it’s there and why they say it the way they do.
  • From the very beginning Ann is over Larry. It begs the question if she was over Larry before he left for the war. Especially since she nearly married someone ‘two years ago.’ That would be a very short time after Larry’s death. Even though Larry tells Ann not to wait for him, she gets over him quickly. Discuss in groups why that is.
  • Improvise a scene between Ann and the two brothers before the war. What was she like as a younger girl? Has she changed at all? Add George into the mix. How does he act at this age?
  • In groups, find lines for Ann that accentuate her sweetness and her steel. Say the lines in pairs with a defined physical presence. How does her physical presence change when she is being sweet to when she is being strong? After the first round switch the presence – say the sweet lines with the strong presence and the strong lines with the sweet presences. How does that affect her character?
  • Improv the day that Ann gets the letter from Larry. What does she do? How does she react? Does she ever think about talking to the Kellers? Or to Chris?
  • Ann makes a choice to turn her back on George and stay with Chris. This is the second family member she’s turned her back on. What was Ann’s family life like? Write a scene in groups that shows the Deever’s family life.


Questions To Answer


  1. Why doesn’t Ann bring out the letter from Larry sooner?
  2. Is Ann right or wrong to use the letter?
  3. Did Ann really love Larry?
  4. Has Ann ever suspected Joe?
  5. Sue describes Ann as the ‘female version’ of Chris. Is this a true vision of Ann? Why or why not?
  6. What is the relationship between Ann and George? Who is older? Who acts older?
  7. How does Ann view the world?




Kate Keller

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‘Honest to God, it breaks my heart to see what happened to all the children. How we worked and planned for you, and you end up no better than us.’ (Act Two)


Kate is another complicated character. It seems cut and dry: Kate is a woman who loves her family. So much so that when her son Larry goes missing during the war, she continues to believe he lives with a steely determination.


Just as Joe is willing to do no matter what to make money for the family, Kate is willing to do no matter what to keep Larry alive. And for Kate if it means going along with Joe’s denial of his crime, that’s what she is willing to do. In this regard, Joe and Kate are quite similar. They both feel intense individual responsibilities to their family and ignore the world at large to achieve that individual responsibility. Kate’s maternal love comes at the determent of acknowledging the reality of the situation.


And just as Joe seems like the head of the family on the surface, it’s Kate who rules everything. She is in such control that everyone around her maintains the fallacy of Larry’s survival. At the beginning of the play Joe is unwilling to publicly back Chris’ decision to reveal his relationship with Ann. Kate constantly needles Joe that he needs to support her because she supports him. Throughout the play she tries to bully Ann into admitting that she’s still in love with Larry and waiting for him. And when George arrives with talk of confronting Joe, she uses her ‘maternal love’ to weaken George:


‘We all love you. Joe was just talking about the day you were born and the water got shut off. People were carrying basins from a block away – a stranger would have thought the whole neighbourhood was on fire! Why didn’t you give him some juice?’ (Act Two)


Suddenly Kate is no longer a cut and dry character.


Activities and Exercises


  • Kate is first described in the stage directions as ‘a woman of uncontrolled inspirations, and an overwhelming capacity for love.’ Give this description to students before reading the play. Have the students stand and create a physical presence for him. How do these descriptive words become three-dimensional?
  • Alternatively, draw a picture or choose pictures of someone who fits this description. Then once students have read the play, have them draw a picture of Kate. Compare and contrast the two pictures.
  • Stage the dream that Kate has about Larry. Why does Kate share this dream?
  • What was Kate like before the war? Has she completely changed? Why or why not? Improv a scene with Kate and her family that shows her pre-war personality.
  • Create an improv where Kate interacts with her two sons before the war. What was her relationship like with Larry? Was it typical? How did she interact with Chris?
  • Stage the moment before the play begins with the storm and Kate entering the yard in the middle of the night.


Questions To Answer


  1. Does Kate live up to his description in his initial stage directions?
  2. Is Kate insane, or completely sane?
  3. Why does Kate consider herself and Joe stupid?
  4. Does Kate love Joe? Why or why not?
  5. What does money mean to Kate?
  6. How does her overwhelming capacity for love hurt those closest to her?
  7. In Act Three Kate says she has no strength. Is this the truth or a tactic? Are there any other places in the play where she demonstrates a lack of strength?
  8. How does Kate view the world?




Chris Keller

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‘So who flew those P-40’s, pigs?’ (Act Two)


On the surface Chris seems like a straightforward character. Dig a little deeper and he turns into an enigma. What he says and what he does are often two different things. Always a great find in theatre!


  • He is presented as an idealist but never rejects the money his father makes.
  • He’s upset that the war didn’t really change the world, but when he returns from the war goes right to working in his father’s plant. He doesn’t carry through on his words.
  • He tells Ann how difficult having money and materialism has been for him after the war, but the instant Ann agrees to marry him, he declares he’s going to make a ‘fortune’ for her.
  • He chastises Joe’s ‘talent’ for ignoring things. But Chris has the same talent – it is revealed at the end of the play that Chris suspected Joe and did nothing.
  • He’s presented by Ann as someone who speaks the truth. But Chris also has the same talent for lying that Joe has. He says that none of the neighbours talk about Ann’s dad anymore, which isn’t true. He supports the lie that Larry is alive.


Activities and Exercises


  • Chris is described in his initial stage direction as: ‘solidly built, a listener. A man capable of immense affection and loyalty.’ Give this description to students before reading the play. Have the students stand and create a physical presence for him. How do these descriptive words become three-dimensional?
  • Alternatively, draw a picture or choose pictures of someone who fits this description. Then once students have read the play, have them draw a picture of Chris. Compare and contrast the two pictures.
  • What are the physical similarities between Chris and Joe? Are they built the same way? Do they have a similar laugh? An identical gesture? Read the opening conversation between Chris and Joe establishing the physical nature of both characters. If Joe is a boxer, what is Chris?
  • Now that you’ve established each character’s physical presence, switch the lines but keep the presence (So Joe would read Chris’ lines keeping Joe’s physical presence and vice versa). What is the response from those observing the scene?
  • In groups, define what it means to be a good son. What does that mean in the present day? Now give each group a character (Chris, Joe, Kate, and George) and define what it means to be a good son for each of these characters. How do these definitions compare and contrast with your own?
  • In groups discuss Chris and Ann’s relationship. Chris has been writing to Ann for the past two years, but has not seen her since the war. Why do you think Chris went after Ann? What is the timeline of his feelings for her? When did Ann know that she was in love with him?
  • Write Chris’ first letter to Ann and Ann’s first letter to Chris. What initially prompts Chris to write to her?
  • In groups decide what Chris was like during the war. Jim says that he was known as ‘Mother McKeller.’ Kate says she heard he was a ‘killer.’ Which is the more accurate description and why? Create an improv of Chris interacting with his soldiers during the war.
  • What was Chris and Larry’s relationship like? Improv a scene between the two brothers. Now add Ann into the mix. What were the three like together? Did Chris like Ann when she was dating Larry?


Questions To Answer


  1. Does Chris live up to his description in his initial stage directions?
  2. Chris also says that he likes to keep ‘abreast’ of his ignorance. How does his ignorance differ from Joe?
  3. He says he’s a good son and a good sucker: In what way has Chris been a sucker? Is this statement true or an exaggeration?
  4. What are the differences between what Chris says and what he does?
  5. Does Chris idolize his father?
  6. Chris says that he never saw Joe as a man – “I saw you as my father.” What does this quote mean?
  7. Is Chris better than Joe? Why or Why not?
  8. Is Chris right or wrong to pursue Ann?