The Rose, Kingston, 5 November 2016
Arthur Miller is a playwright of abundant virtues, and several vices as well. The success of any production of his work depends not only on how abundantly it displays the virtues, but also how skilfully it negotiates the vices. The director and fine, intelligent cast of “All My Sons”, which has opened at The Rose Theatre, Kingston, score high marks in both departments.
The strengths of Miller’s plays are clear and for which he is justly famous. They represent a stern criticism of the priorities which govern the American way of life, and, unusually for state of the nation plays, remain as apposite now as they were sixty years ago. As Joe tells his son, “It’s dollars and cents, nickels and dimes, war and peace, it’s nickels and dimes, what’s clean?”
Even more resonantly, his best plays shine a harsh and unflinching light into the dark lies and hypocrisies that sit at the heart of the traditional family. By the end of his three great family tragedies, the patina of wishful thinking that has hidden all those lies for years is shattered into a million pieces.
Yet, at the same time, he asks an awful lot of his actors and director. Some of the dialogue is frankly clunky and awkward. It’s difficult to imagine anyone ever saying it. Even more troubling, he asks the actors to perform one dramatic emotional volte face after another. Minutes after a dreadful harangue, the same two characters are sitting down for coffee. These are Americans, of course, and get these things out of their system much more quickly than the average Brit, but even so.
These are the heights and the obstacles that confront the director, and in this case Michael Rudman has opted deliberately for a quiet, downbeat approach. The characters do rage at each other and react to the most appalling of revelations with horror, but in a controlled, almost repressed, fashion.
This means that the production avoids being overwrought, which is much to be welcomed, but at times it also feels that the emotional stakes aren’t high enough. One should leave an evening of Miller stunned and exhausted, yet one leaves this play feeling rather troubled. This is the single criticism of what is a fine piece of theatre, and perhaps you can’t sidestep the overwrought without also eliding the blockbuster emotional punch.
The play begins on a hot summer evening in 1947 somewhere in the American Midwest. Glen Miller plays on the radio. The Kellers live in a fine clapboard house with a wraparound porch and climbing roses on the trellis. Joe Keller, early 60s, is a self-made industrialist who has done well. As one character says, Joe’s machining plant on the edge of town “looks like General Motors.”
He’s married to Kate, and his son Chris, early 30s, is set to take over the family business. The Kellers play court to local families and their children in their back yard, a personification of the attainability and fulfilment of the American Dream.
But all is not what it seems. The recently ended war casts a long shadow over everyone. The Kellers’ eldest son Larry never returned from it, but Kate doesn’t believe he’s dead. One day he will come home, she fervently holds, and spends every time in expectation of this event.
Joe had a good war. He did well out of it; but at what cost? There are unanswered questions, dark brooding doubts about what his manufacturing plant, which made aircraft engines, did during the war years.
Into this family trio and its neighbours returns Ann Deever, one-time local resident sweetheart of Larry, to see the Kellers for the first time in two years. It is her arrival that sets in motion a chain of revelations that destroys that picture of the successful American Dream.
The cast is excellent. There are detailed, rich performances wherever one looks. Penny Downie is wonderful as Kate Keller, a woman barely holding it together in the face of insurmountable grief and hidden suspicions of her husband’s true nature.
The always highly watchable Alex Waldmann brings his considerable skill and sharp intelligence to the role of Chris Keller , trying to reconcile what he has seen and done in the war with a world that wants to forget and return to the old ways of self-interest. Edward Harrison, as George Deever, Ann’s brother, is particularly noteworthy of mention. He has only 20 minutes on stage, and yet is utterly commanding and decisive during it. He has also to negotiate several particularly difficult emotional undulations in that brief period.
David Horovitch, as the patriarch Joe, the Greek tragic hero with a carefully concealed flaw from which he will not escape, stands at the centre of the piece. While on many occasions the right note is struck, he sometimes seems more like a harassed middle manager than a vigorous and confident entrepreneur.
He shuffles around the stage seeming older than his years, when a confident, charismatic mien would have been more true to this type of self-made man. Joe is the type of man who has forged ahead with boundless energy and brooked no argument with utter self-belief. This makes his fall even more startling.
Such men are rare. They take risks where others dare not. They compel both awe and distrust. But they are always compelling and always leaders. After all, all the characters come round to Joe Keller’s back yard; he doesn’t go round to theirs.
Horovitch doesn’t have enough of this quality. He has taken the same underplayed route which governs the spirit of this production, but, in this instance it doesn’t serve the play as well as a fifth gear performance might have done.
Miller wrote All My Sons during the second world war, when he knew vast profits were being made. He wanted it, he said, “to explode in the face of the business community with its self-advertised but profitable patriotism.” His target was hypocrisy, or more accurately, untruthfulness and the consequences of untruthfulness.
Though we are a long way from that world of faulty engine heads and P40 aeroplanes and national sacrifice, these themes are as pertinent as they were almost seventy years ago. This thoughtful production is true to them.