The Streaming Experience: Arthur Miller’s All My Sons
I have seen Arthur Miller’s 1947 play a number of times, most recently on Broadway with Tracy Letts and Annette Bening in the parental roles. The play’s drama, as written, is teased out slowly and delicately, almost like an Agatha Christie mystery, unwrapping the intricate and delicately entangled interactions inside one’s family, friends, and neighbors. Miller always finds a timeless way into that conflict with urgency, clarity, and precise ease, rarely failing to completely trap us in the deceptions and depictions of success and normality that quietly roll out for discovery, like clues to a crime, but there is no Miss Marple to put the pieces together, just the souls of a family in turmoil, destined to unravel a morality murder one piece of evidence at a time.
All My Sons opened on Broadway at the Coronet Theatre on January 29, 1947, and ran for 328 performances. It was directed by Elia Kazan (to whom it was dedicated) and won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award. Winning both the Tony Award for Best Author and the Tony Award for Best Direction of a Play, the now-classic play starred Ed Begley, Beth Miller, Arthur Kennedy, and Karl Malden. What a storm that would have been to witness. The last Broadway revival failed in my eyes to fully deliver the Shakespearian tragedy planted in the Keller backyard, but with director Howard Davies (Broadway’s 2007 revival of A Moon for the Misbegotten) recreating his production from ten years prior at the National, with a new and dynamic cast assembled, the play finds the roots and the tension within to make it stand tall once again. Davies unearths the structuring within the play, painting a portrait of a society that is as flawed as the individual at its core. This production of All My Sons, now being streamed on YouTube for our isolated pleasure, beautifully filmed by Robert Delamere for Digital Theatre when it was revived at the Apollo Theatre, is as solid and tense as Zoe Wanamaker’s astonishing portrayal of Kate, mother and wife, who believes with an unceasing determination that her son Larry, reported missing in World War II, is still alive and everyone must fall into that same belief structure if the family is going to survive the storm that is brewing.
Stripping away all of the protective illusions a family can cling to, Miller desperately strives to unpack all that just like he did in his other classic, Death of a Salesman. The reality of that wreckage, drenched in the promise of the “American Dream”, is written with a clarity that chills our collective spines. Like the businessman in Salesman, Joe Keller, played with a covered boiling pot of tension by the phenomenal David Suchet (West End’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) has to find a way to comprehend his collision at the core of this epic play, and make amends for losing his moral high-ground in the conflict between comfort and complicity. His adoring son Chris played forcefully by the broad framed Stephen Campbell Moore (West End/Broadway’s The History Boys), struggles to grapple with the destruction of truth and his strongly held belief of honor within. The backyard of this all-American family’s home, designed with an impeccable sense for detail by William Dudley, becomes the battlefield where this war will play out, where destruction will arrive in the end carrying the complex complicity of power, greed, and wealth.
This time around, the solidly realistic Ohio backyard years of post World War II, with classic shade and sun supplied by lighting designer Mark Henderson, is a place where a tall tale of deception is having a difficult time staying rooted in the earth. Wanamaker (Broadway’s Awake and Sing!) finds authenticity in Kate’s anxiety from the moment she does a singular battle with an electrical storm that brings about an emotional uprooting in the first few moments of the play. Wanamaker quietly pulls her mask in place, hiding her internal struggle as much as she can when in the public’s view, although the straps of the deception slip and reveal the pain and anger underneath. Kate’s defiance brilliantly shades the vehemence that lies under the fragile flourishes of suburban charm. The conflict of loving a man that has cast her inside this impossible and conflictual reality diorama is what makes this Kate grab hold with both fists to this Ohio household. She pulls the whole proceedings down into the earth and plants the seeds of complicit deceit solidly.
David Suchet does similarly superb work with Joe Keller, the husband, and father who has to conceal his guilt and shame under the branches of the beaming patriarch. Joe, and Suchet, play the role well, joking with his neighbors, and presenting a man with, what appears to be, no demons on his back, but all that bravado changes this one particular night. We see the anxiety ripple across his body, and his brain ramps up in fear of discovery. It’s a masterclass of confrontation to a false narrative that has held him and his wife together over these years, even as he sees out of the corner of his eyes the cracks that have formed and threaten all that he has tried to construct around him. Wannamaker and Suchet carry the pair forward majestically with a symbolic edge and metaphoric grandeur that burrow under the skin, leaving an uncomfortable itch that is impossible to scratch.
“Larry is not coming back“, his brother states, single-handedly driving a dagger into his mother’s heart, as Chris announces his full intention to marry the visiting Annie, played solidly by Jemima Rooper (Vaudeville Theatre’s Hand to God) even though his mother still views her as Larry’s sweetheart. Moore delivers Chris’s defiant stance with a force that catches and cracks the veneer. He hopes that this defiant move will help everyone get past the delusional veil that descended on the house so many years ago. He is desperate to marry the woman he loves, knowing that it will not bring joy to the household as it will disrupt his mother’s fight and the faith in Larry’s survival, for many more reasons than first stated to her son. As long as she keeps her pilot son, Larry, alive, she can withstand almost anything, somewhat. It all makes sense to her if that is the truth. But when Ann Deever arrives hopeful and determined, at the request of Chris, the winds change direction for Kate. She tries to pretend all is right with the world, and that ultimately, Ann will remain as Larry’s loyal girl, forever waiting for his return. But the wounds are opening up, and a confrontation is arriving by train that will change everything for the whole family. In the course of a single day, both Joe and his wife, Kate, are forced to see that the lies by which they have attempted to live are destined to be exposed to the light of the day.
Director Davies constructs a slow-building storm that is hot with electrical power and is supported by a cast that fills out the gaps effectively, guaranteeing that the punch that is on its way over finds its mark. Rooper vibrates with a need for Chris that registers far beyond the obvious. She holds a truth-filled card deep in her pocket that she doesn’t want to play, but will if that is what is needed to free Chris from his mother’s tight hold. Arriving midway through the afternoon, Daniel Lapaine as Annie’s charged brother George is on fire with a newly revised past that is pushing his body into action. With the disconcerting announcement that he is on his way over after a surprising meeting in the prison with his father, a man both children have vilified and ignored, the tension in that house rises exponentially. The storm winds pick up, threatening to take down all that stand up to the power of the past. His awaited entrance is fiery, heaving weight on top of the already overburdened shoulders of those that hold secret guilt at arm’s length. George, like his sister, longs for some form of truth to be told so a new restructuring can take place, but the outcome he wants is far different from Annie’s. His upright frame is momentarily bent by the familiarity of the old neighborhood, but a slip of Kate’s tongue snaps it back into place, refueling the fire, and making it impossible for life to continue as it once was.
Radiating out from the perception of perfection with dry rot growing underneath unseen to the neighbor’s eyes, the nearby folk, all played solidly by a cast of professionals, wander in and out of that family’s backyard as if the residents were the classical grandmother and grandfather of the street. But what is found below the surface is more morally complex and convoluted. Steven Elder as the neighboring Doctor Jim Bayliss and Tom Vaughn-Taylor as Frank Lubey deliver solid work convincing us of their loyalty and love for their older neighbors, while giving us clarity of the external looking underneath. Claire Hackett as Jim’s discontented wife finds a different edge than I’ve seen before, diving into a pool of frustrated anger that will blossom later inside the family. It’s a telling prequel that I don’t recall being so stormy, but it lays down the structurally unsound foundations of Chris’s familial loyalty as the winds of the storm start to wind up.
It all comes down to the moment when the letter is pulled from Annie’s pocket. I had forgotten about that moment, surprisingly, as I was really just waiting for the earlier moment when Kate slips up and exposes the central lie. As each person reacts to the reading of the letter, the crushing weight piles on, forcing those down to their weakened knees. The devastating impact it has on each floods the margins of the stage with a force equal to that initial damaging winds. Ideals are struck down with the same force as lightning, and the solid family value tree is scorched and cracked. The production stands strong, living up to the tragedy that swirls around the familial home. It leaves destruction all around, as we take in the four standing unsure where to look or whom to turn to for comfort. It’s a chilling dynamic at the end, one that devastates as clearly as it does for Chris. Kate’s reactions shatter the core within, as we all watch the All My Sons morality tale of commerce and war crash down, then settle. We can’t help but see the parallels to our current dry-rotted corrupt government as we watch all the lies play out, and proclaim that the conflict stings. Miller’s sharp intention of pricking at the realities of corruption that exists then and now within the American dream strikes as destructively solid as ever.