The director Gregory Mosher found an actor he thought was perfect to play George Deever, one of the main characters in “All My Sons,” the Arthur Miller classic that is coming back to Broadway in the spring.
Though the principal cast members in the original late-1940s production were white, this actor was black. Mr. Mosher went about trying to find a black actress to play his sister, Ann Deever.
But Rebecca Miller, the film director and screenwriter who runs her father’s estate, stepped in. She questioned the choice of making the Deever family black when the play’s other central family, the Kellers, had already been cast as white.
The two sides could not reconcile and this week, Mr. Mosher left the production, putting a cloud over a highly anticipated revival starring Annette Bening and Tracy Letts. It also rekindled a debate over access to important theater roles, though in this instance, the disagreement was not over whether to diversify the cast, but how.
“All My Sons” tells the story of the Kellers and the Deevers, two families in 1947 Ohio whose relationships are upended by a scandal involving military parts for World War II, and a soldier gone missing.
In other instances, Ms. Miller has supported casting people of color in roles traditionally filled by white actors. A 2019 production of “Death of a Salesman” in London, for example, will feature a black Loman family. But here, she said, she was not convinced.
There is a romantic connection between the two families, and if the Deevers were black, it could introduce the concept of an interracial relationship in a time and place where that was highly unusual.
“My concern was that to cast the Deevers as black puts a burden on the play to justify the relationship in the historical context,” Ms. Miller said. Since the script does not address race, she said, “I was worried that it would whitewash the racism that really was in existence in that period by creating this pretend-Valhalla-special family where no one would mention this.”
Mr. Mosher, a decorated director and producer and the chairman of the theater department at Hunter College, said that he believed Ms. Miller was making a sincere effort to protect the script, and that she offered to allow Mr. Mosher’s choice for George Deever if Ann were played by an actress of a different race than her brother. It was unclear why that option was more acceptable, but in any case, Mr. Mosher said, the disagreement put him in an impossible bind, so he left.
“I was auditioning black actresses, which means the black acting community in New York knew I was doing it,” he said. “I didn’t know what to say to these actors. I’ve decided to hire a white girl? I couldn’t find somebody? What am I supposed to say?”
“It was a kind of breaking faith with a community that I didn’t want to break faith with,” he continued. “I’m afraid it comes rather quickly to ‘you just have the wrong skin color for this part.’ ”
Mr. Mosher’s departure was first reported on Tuesday in The Washington Post. He is being replaced by a Tony-winning director, Jack O’Brien. A spokeswoman for the production company, the Roundabout Theater Company, said that the actor Mr. Mosher wanted for George is still being considered for that role. He has not been publicly identified.
Playwrights have tremendous power in the theater, even in death. An estate can threaten to pull the rights to a show if it disagrees with certain choices, like casting, but Harvey Young, dean of the Boston University College of Fine Arts, said such disputes are rare and tend to be restricted to certain estates. But they happen.
Last year, Edward Albee’s estate refused to allow a theater producer in Oregon to cast a black actor in the role of Nick in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” In a statement at the time, a spokesman for the estate said, “Mr. Albee himself said on numerous occasions when approached with requests for nontraditional casting in productions of ‘Virginia Woolf’ that a mixed-race marriage between a Caucasian and an African-American would not have gone unacknowledged in conversations in that time and place and under the circumstances in which the play is expressly set by textual references in the 1960s.”
There are different approaches to diverse casting. In so-called colorblind casting, the production hires the best actor for the part, regardless of their race and the original race of the character. Color-conscious casting means the roles are open to different races, but the production considers how the audience will react to the choices.
Dr. Young said that an example of the latter he likes to offer his students is “The Shawshank Redemption.” In the original novella, written by Stephen King, the character named Red is Irish. But in the movie, that character is played by Morgan Freeman — who even says, when asked how he got his name, “maybe it’s because I’m Irish.”
Dr. Young said that color-conscious casting allows the work to tackle contemporary issues and creates the opportunity to breathe in new life.
“The very best theater allows you to engage with your present social and political moment,” Dr. Young said.
Ms. Miller said she was not advocating colorblind casting, but rather “being more conscious, not less.” She said that she was in favor of casting more actors of color in the production and that she did not necessarily discount that the play could be performed with a black Deever family in the future.
“I would love to see a reading of that to see what it would entail,” she said. “But not in the kind of extreme pressure of ‘we’re about to start rehearsal.’ It needs some time and thought.”
Mr. Mosher was dismayed by how it all turned out, though he did not appear embittered.
“Man, I wanted to direct this play,” he wrote on Facebook Tuesday night. “It’s so good, and I’ve thought about it so intensely in the past half year.”
“But ‘All My Sons’ is not a documentary about life in rural Ohio in 1947, the year it opened. It’s a play,” he continued. “I think I made the right choice. We’ll see what happens next. Maybe it will all be fine. I sincerely hope so.”