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A CurtainUp Review
All My Sons
By Elyse Sommer
Actually, Miller's plays have previously inspired directors to mount his plays with less naturalistic stagecraft. Michael Mayer's stark Hopper-like set for the 1997 revival of A View From the Bridge focused more on the backdrop of the Brooklyn Bridge than the furnishings of the Carbone home; Robert Falls' 1999 revival of Death of a Salesman was of a piece with the expressionistic dream scenes and the turntable set was furnished with the barest minimum of props. Thus McBurney, best known for his Complicité company's cutting edge work, is not the first to take a Miller classic into experimental territory. In fact, he has been quoted as saying that he felt free to do so, after Miller, during a chance meeting, told him that he thought directors took his plays too literally.
McBurney has not just stripped the Keller home of furnishings but torn down the walls, leaving only an upstage door leading to a vast, barren backyard devoid of the homey-ness associated with middle class Americana. While that backyard with its chainlink fences leading to the neighboring houses is not particularly attractive and the glimpses of actors waiting to return to center stage in the wings on each side tend to be distracting, it is one of many ways Mr. McBurney takes this sixty-year-old play into the twenty-first century.
The overall production chucks realism off the stage, even before the Keller's tragic saga begins, the entire cast walks on stage in a sort of reverse curtain call. John Lithgow, who plays the morally compromised businessman Joe Keller, steps forward, announces that the play is about to begin and reads the first few lines of the script. ("The backyard of the Keller home on the outskirts of an American town. . .". His words are also projected on a back panel, as are scene announcements throughout. This is followed by a very brief, wordless storm scene during which we see the insomniac Kate Keller (Dianne Wiest) watching the lone tree in the yard collapse. This haunting prologue was first featured in the revival Howard Davies helmed in London eight years ago. However, the Brechtian prologue and the filmic elements which, in addition to the projected scene announcements include newsreel-like footage uderscored by Christopher Schutt and Carolyn Downing's ominous sound design are McBurneyisms.
Whether you're old enough to remember —and prefer—the original 1947 production, the film, or the Williamstown Theatre Festivals fine 50th anniversary presentation ( for which Miller was still on hand) that traveled to the Roundabout in New York, the play itself retains its power, no matter how it's staged. To borrow from my review of that 1999 production: Sure it's a melodrama mounted on a soap box, but it works even after all these years because it's peopled with memorable flesh and blood characters. It grips and convinces because the playwright never loads a scene with an undischarged bullet (i.e.: Joe Keller's "I'm his father and he's my son, and if there's something bigger than that I'll put a bullet in my head").
The fact that this story about the tragic consequences of the lapse from decency of an "ordinary" American businessman like Joe Keller is a World War II period piece doesn't keep it from but still hitting the emotional bulls eye. It is grounded in a time-transcending, universal theme, as summed up towards the end of the play by Chris Keller (Patrick Wilson) to his mother (Dianne Wiest): "Once and for all you must know that there's a universe of people outside, and you're responsible to it." Unfortunately, Chris' eloquent plea still falls on many a deaf ear and the current war's instances of greed-above-all make Joe Keller's knowingly selling defective plane engine parts to the Army during World War II way too timely.
As the current production amply illustrates, All My Sons is also very much a vehicle for fine acting. John Lithgow is a strong Joe Keller. He charms and cajoles, and finally caves in under the weight of the drama's climax.
Patrick Wilson has finally found a role to showcase his power as a dramatic actor. We see him first as a loyal and loving son, a genuinely good man. He wants to marry Ann (Katie Holmes), who was engaged to his missing in action brother (dead to all but his mother). Ann's family history is painfully linked to the Kellers' double tragedy: the loss of a son, and the disgrace over the flawed airplane parts. Watching Chris metamorphose from optimism to bitter wisdom, after Ann's brother George (a superb cameo from Christian Camargo) follows her to the Keller home boiling with rage after becoming aware of the unjusft fate of his father who's "become a little man" because "that's what happens to suckers"
While Dianne Wiest poignantly captures the complex emotions of a woman in deep retreat from the truth that makes the Kellers story a genuine Greek tragedy, the female role that's been getting all the pre-opening buzz is that of Katie Holmes Ann. While Holmes, whose Broadway debut this is, doesn't disgrace herself, and certainly is good too look at, her voice is too shrill and her performance lacking enough nuance for this to prompt shoutouts about the birth of a new Broadway star.
The production is blessed with a fine ensemble to give life to Miller's well developed secondary characters. Becky Ann Baker is particularly good as Sue Bayliss, the wife of a doctor who'd rather do research than practice general medicine.
This highly stylized and filmic staging in many ways suits the play's intensely melodramatic plot, but ultimately it's the inherent power of the play itself that makes it a welcome addition to the season's re-examination of dramas that have lasting substance.
I've includes some highlights from the 60 Year History of All My Sons: at the end of the production notes. For more about Arthur Miller and his work, with links to all productions reviewed at Curtainup see ourArthur Miller Backgrounder