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SALUTARY REVIVAL OF A FRIGHTENINGLY TOPICAL MODERN CLASSIC

Print Version
Photo: Stephen A'Court
Photo: Stephen A'Court
ALL MY SONS
By Arthur Miller
Directed by Susan Wilson

at Circa One, Wellington
From 2 Jun 2012 to 7 Jul 2012

Reviewed by John Smythe, 4 Jun 2012


It is simultaneously impressive and depressing that this play, written 65 years ago about the relationship between war and capitalism, remains so relevant in the context of financial corruption in high places and the USA war machine's continuing exploits. 

Thank goodness that after the failure of his first-produced play, The Man Who Had All The Luck (which opened on Broadway in late 1944 and ran for only 4 performances), Arthur Miller didn't give up but went on, aged 30-32, to write All My Sons, which opened in January 1947, then Death Of A Salesman two years later (which Susan Wilson directed so impressively at Circa in 2006) and so on.

Legend has it All My Sons was inspired both by the true story of a woman who turned her father in for supplying defective parts to the army, and by Henrik Isben's The Wild Duck. I buy the former but question the latter, given the nature of the inciting incident and the outcome of the quest for truth.

It seems crystal clear to me that Miller is questioning the fundamentals of the private enterprise system that underpins our capitalist society when it values staying in business above all else, in pursuit of the elusive American Dream. And the stakes are especially high, and the morality especially questionable, when the business in question is feeding the insatiable war machine.  

A very dramatic prologue opening, not scripted as such by Miller (but created by director Howard Davies in the 2010 Apollo revival of his 2000 National Theatre production, seen, I believe, by Wilson) dramatises the ‘dark and stormy night' wherein Kate Keller witnesses the damage done to the memorial tree she planted when her USA Air Force fighter pilot son Larry went missing-in-action, three and a half years ago.

Gareth Hobbs' soundscape ingeniously captures the ambiguous possibility of this being an electrical storm or aerial warfare. Throughout the play his compositions support or enhance the more intense dramatic moments.

All My Sons is a very well-constructed three-act play, with a first act that lays the expositional foundations as neatly as the fake grass on John Hodgkins' excellent set, depicting the back porch and yard of a family home on the outskirts of a small American town but more ‘distressed' here than the script indicates. In retrospect that grass, the sense of façade, the emptiness behind an upstairs window and the fiery glow that flares beneath the home at times – as part of Ulli Briese's brilliant lighting design – conspire to feed our growing awareness that lies underlie these middle American lives.

I don't think I am alone in feeling, initially, that the set-ups are so clear that I can see what's coming the proverbial mile off. But it's not as simple as that and the twists and turns, the paradigm shifts and our senses of judgement are pushed and pulled as dramatically as in a potent court room battle. Despite its outward appearance as a domestic drama, it has the dramatic structure of a thriller.

No matter what the detractors of such contrived naturalistic theatre offer as alternatives, when excellent actors take on these roles – their presents rooted in unresolved pasts while their desired futures are impeded by circumstance, each other or themselves – All My Sons cannot help but resonate with a depth and breadth of human truth that is salutary, moving and satisfying. So it is with this Susan Wilson-directed production.

Kate Keller's unwillingness to accept the loss of Larry is the first of many warped realities to surface and Emma Kinane anchors her firmly in that state while playing out the happy housewife she wants to be. Likewise Jeffrey Thomas overlays a brooding Joe Keller with the ebullience of a successful businessman and all-round great neighbourhood guy. Both express their sudden anger at any challenge to this status quo with a vehemence that belies their otherwise apparent complacency.

The surviving son, Chris Keller, is the one with the most forward momentum – wanting to marry Larry's girlfriend Ann Deever – and so is the most frustrated at finding his way blocked. Richard Dey captures his dilemma perfectly, not only in this particular but also on the larger canvass of having to question his faith in truth, justice and the American way.

Jessica Robinson is ideal casting as Annie, who grew up next door and is the daughter of Joe's ex business partner Steve, now languishing in prison for supplying the cracked cylinder heads to the USAAF which led directly to the deaths of 21 pilots. Initially glowing as a woman of the world who believes justice has been done, her conditioned notion that she needs a man – specifically Chris – to feel complete has no sooner surfaced than she too must confront the true nature of ‘manhood' in go-ahead America. (It's up to us to decide whether the male assertion that their women make them do it has any validity.)

Anne's brother George, now a New York lawyer, appears only briefly but the similar yet concentrated emotional journey he goes through is powerfully distilled by Martyn Wood. Especially memorable is his transition from rigorous lawyer to the boy next door, returned to this role by the loving ministrations of Kate.

A theme of practicality, or pragmatism, versus idealism permeates the play and is embodied in the neighbour characters (a luxury, I feel bound to note, that few modern playwrights allow themselves these days, requiring much more from each ‘performing unit' in the professional production equation).

Dr Jim Bayliss and his wife Sue now live in what was the Deever's house. Gavin Rutherford brings a poignant note to Dr Jim's frustration at being dragged back from his love of research to earn a better living in local practice, while Erin Banks' Sue is ruthless in her determination to prioritise money and lifestyle above all else.

Over the other fence are the Lubeys. Lyndsey Gardner's Lydia Lubey, who was George's girlfriend before the war, is the domestic goddess incarnate, happily sewing clothes for all of their three children and delighted to renovate a hat for Kate. Her husband Frank – over-played, on opening night anyway, with inappropriate theatrical flourish by Chris Brougham – was always one year ahead of the draft and pursues astrology as a hobby in a way the feeds Kate's fantasy.

Completing the cast is Bert, a neighbourhood boy played delightfully on opening night by Beck Taylor (who alternates with Dino Karsanidis). He has playfully – and portentously from a dramaturgical perspective – been appointed ‘policeman' by Joe, and plays the Sheriff to the hilt.

Paul Jenden's costume designs are impeccable, with gorgeous frocks for the younger women. As such, complete with immaculate make-up, they deliver a little too much of a fashion parade for a casual back yard Sunday (where going to church is never mentioned) but Robinson and Banks, who are clad in the brightest and most patterned prints, have the acting chops to quickly draw us deeper into their characters' abiding concerns.

What impresses most is the frightening topicality of this modern classic, at a time when the US economy depends on the war machine's employment of industry, and when huge moral lapses have been exposed in a system that values service to shareholders and personal wealth above all else. While its salutary revival has been welcomed in the UK and USA in recent years, it is remarkable to note this is the first professional production to be staged in Wellington. 
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See also reviews by:
 Ewen Coleman
 Lynn Freeman (Capital Times);
 Toni Marks