Under Molly Smith's direction, the Arena Stage production of Arthur Miller's "All My Sons" isn't really the scathing indictment of American capitalism that the 1947 play has generally been thought to be. Oh, sure, Miller's lines condemning war profiteering are still there in full, histrionic force. But rather than build the production on top of them, Smith uses for her main support the play's devastating portrait of a family shattering to pieces.

But not just any family. Miller has created a nuclear unit with a fairly high Symbolism Factor: Industrialist and patriarch Joe Keller has achieved the American dream. But as the script and production show, the means are corrupt and the end a false paradise. When the play's allegory isn't in your face, the evening has a raw, awful power that hits you in the gut. Smith has reached deep into Miller's first successful play, found the muscle and come out swinging.

Set designer Pavel Dobrusky has beautifully landscaped an Edenic back yard, complete with apple tree, on the Fichandler Theater stage. Surrounding the last row of seats in the in-the-round auditorium are sections of oversize white picket fence, as if the entire audience is sort of visiting the Kellers on this sunny Sunday morning following a storm that has felled the tree. (Ominous enough for you?)

The plot: Joe's son Chris (David Fendig) upsets his family's delicate suburban balance by saying he wants to marry Ann (Rhea Seehorn). Problem is, Ann was once engaged to Larry, Chris's brother, a pilot still listed as missing in action during World War II.

It's been three years since Larry's plane disappeared--two since the war ended--and both Ann and Chris have come to believe he's dead. So, too, has Joe (M. Emmet Walsh), but not Kate (Beth Fowler), Joe's wife and Chris's mother, who desperately clings to the hope that Larry will someday turn up alive and come home. Ann, she insists, must continue to share that belief.

Complicating matters is the fact that Ann's father--Joe's former business partner--and Joe were once indicted for selling defective engine parts during the war, which later caused the deaths of 21 American pilots. (Larry, Joe repeatedly says, was not among them.)

Joe was later exonerated, but Ann's father was not. She wants nothing more to do with him. But suddenly her brother George (Paul Morella) shows up, newly convinced that their father was just a patsy and that Joe has been the culprit all along. George is therefore dead set against letting his sister marry into a family he thinks is up to its thighs in blood money.

It's not giving away a thing to say that George's suspicions and Kate's desperation are not entirely unrelated. But is either of them right?

Despite attempts to evoke the shades of gray that always seem to cloud difficult questions, the script gives unequivocal answers in the end. Unequivocal lectures might be more accurate: Not even in his later plays has Miller ever been subtle in his moralizing or in his determination that you get what he's trying to say.

But in "All My Sons," the playwright demonstrated a sure hand at creating meaty characters and squaring them off in dramatic confrontations. And with these strong parts of the play, Smith is a champ, not so much directing as refereeing an escalating series of bouts that you know can't end in anything good, no matter who wins. In this production, it's clear each member of the Keller family has a hairline crack like the ones in those defective engine parts; it's just a matter of time, well paced and modulated thanks to Smith, before the blow of truth lands on the right spot.

As the man at the center of the action, Walsh, a veteran of Broadway, television and movies, shambles about the stage, looking at first like someone beginning to bend under the weight of advancing years, the loss of his eldest son and a lifetime of hard work. But beneath his hangdog, just-kiddin'-around tone and gestures, he also suggests the presence of quite another burden Joe may be carrying. And the way the actor lets more of it emerge through the course of the play is fascinating.

Fowler gives an equally layered performance as a mother whose cruelty is a result of dreadful fear. Switching back and forth, sometimes instantly, between utterly civilized postwar wife and ruthlessly self-protective force of nature, Fowler's Kate frequently astonishes with the ease with which she can alternately summon compassion and selfishness.

As the character who perhaps is most upended by the action, Fendig's Chris covers vast emotional ground quickly and with authority. Seehorn and Morella play sister and brother on the verge of estrangement wonderfully, while the rest of the cast--Craig Wallace, Christopher C. Walker, Aakhu TuahNera Freeman, Katie Barrett and Nathan Taylor--provide sturdy support as various neighbors. The acting alone is reason enough to see the show.

Anne Kennedy's costumes are as elegantly simple as the back yard in which they're worn, and they let us know that the Kellers and their friends are successful Americans in the 1940s heartland. Timothy M. Thompson's soft, plaintive sound design underscores the sense of despair threatening this family.

But it's mostly with Dobrusky's help, by way of a startling stage effect near the end, that Smith greatly succeeds in minimizing the author's heavy-handed summations. She prefers instead to leave the impression that self-deception creates its own kind of Hell on Earth--something that everyone, not just a profiteer, is capable of being parent to.

All My Sons, by Arthur Miller. Directed by Molly Smith. Through June 25 at Arena Stage, Sixth Street and Maine Avenue SW. Call 202-488-3300.