Arthur Miller’s first stage success, All My Sons, strikes many chords and all at the same time: its premiere in 1947, followed just two years later by his masterwork, “Death of a Salesman”, placed him alongside Tennessee Williams as the great American playwrights of the post-War period; the themes he introduced in the play – the lethal intoxication of the American Dream, individual responsibility to one’s society, the inescapable complexities of the family structure, the unwinnable battle between father and son and the matter of betrayal – are developed and more fully realized in his later, more mature works; and Miller, as a public voice able, and even willing, to take on governments and other intimidating forces that sought to damage and destroy the Common Man, emerged from the play’s success with a confidence that propelled him through a long and distinguished career.
“All My Sons” is a fine example of the ‘well made play’, a relative rarity today when 90-minute intermissionless plays seem to rule and where spectacle can easily supersede intellect. Miller, of course, wrote at a time when the theatre was an important arena for exploring ideas and for revealing truths that were too often repressed or shrouded in coded language. The film industry was just beginning to feel the assault of the HUAC and McCarthy hearings, and the censorship imposed by the industry’s Production Code had been in effect and would continue to plague writers, directors and producers for at least another decade. Arthur Miller arrived at the right moment: he was a man who saw corruption and named it without apology.
It also has to be said that Miller owes a very great debt to Henrik Ibsen, the early modern Norwegian playwright, whose influence on “All My Sons” is evident throughout. So, too, was Miller inspired by classical Greek tragedy, an influence he would embrace in much of his later writing. The combined inspirations produced a play tightly wound by discussions of moral conscience and the cost to be paid for moral and ethical lapses. The play, too, in its youthful vigor, reveals clumsiness in the writer’s plotting and his fondness for extensive speechifying. However, it is Miller’s mix of unrestrained passion and fiery intellect that makes a virtue of these flaws.
“All My Sons” tells the story of Joe Keller, a successful businessman, who knowingly sold damaged engine heads to the Air Force. His partner, a man far less assured than he, took the fall and was imprisoned for the offence – twenty-one men died in plane crashes as a result of the faulty equipment. Keller’s son, Larry, was also killed in the war, though Keller’s wife refuses to accept his death, believing that he is still alive and that he will return home. (Late in the play we learn the truth of that story.) Chris, the son who has survived, is now a partner in his father’s business, and decides to marry Ann, the woman that his brother had been engaged to. Ann’s father is the imprisoned partner of Joe Keller. The play takes place in the garden of the Keller’s home and the overriding mood shifts from gentle homespun to irresolvable doom, much as a Greek tragedy might enfold and, eventually, constrict the atmosphere to the point of asphyxiation. Miller’s knots of deceit and self-delusion get tighter as the evening proceeds. We are the witnesses and we are also the jury.
Productions of the play demand a strong ensemble and Barrington stage, under the clear and decisive direction of Julianne Boyd, sustains its record as a strong ensemble-based company. The large cast knows the world they inhabit and they know their shared responsibility to the story, their characters and each other. After having seen many Barrington Stage projects over many seasons, both in their main and secondary spaces, it’s clear that Boyd’s artistic leadership is firmly dedicated to company projects rather than personal vehicles.
David M. Barber’s scenic design and Jennifer Moeller’s costume design define the play’s time, place and people with understated accuracy. The set may be just a bit too tidy and clean for a home lived in and defined by its traditional roots, but a unit set that remains unchanged for three acts must, as Barber has done, offer details that reveal themselves in increments rather than all at once.
The cast of ten is strong. Lizbeth MacKay, as Keller’s wife, Kate, shifts tones and colours dictated by Miller’s script – she is by turns neurotic, fragile, ramrod-strong, foolish and powerfully maternal. The writing isn’t always credible for the character, but MacKay takes her time to draw us into her confused and disturbed world. Rebecca Brooksher, as Ann, who is about to marry her former fiancé’s brother, finds tremendous strength in a character filled with surprises. Miller didn’t envision an ingénue or sweet young thing, though she appears to be both when we first meet her. Possessed of personal conviction and a pragmatic nature enough to accept what the world demands to survive, Brooksher radiates throughout. Matthew Carlson, as George, Ann’s brother and defender of their father’s honour, plays his single scene with great passion and never succumbs to the melodrama of the situation and many of the speeches that he must deliver.
Finally, it is the relationship between Keller and his son, Chris, which defines the moral and ethical themes of the play. Jeff McCarthy and Josh Clayton, as father and son, work well together and work hard at the struggle that their characters must confront. But their two major scenes never quite ignite, though they certainly achieve the power necessary to maintain the play’s forward momentum. Clayton is physically less assured or relaxed than he might be and McCarthy never seems quite old or weathered enough to embody the trials and burdens that bedevil the character. The bravado he begins with must be stripped away until there is nothing but deceit and shame. Without this transformation, the play’s final moments don’t penetrate, as they must.
And further to the play’s ending, we again see Miller as a young writer who uses stock stage events to complete his narrative: guns that are not seen but are, eventually, heard and a letter that appears at the end of the play to accelerate the play’s climax. In “Salesman” and “Crucible”, the playwright will have learned to justify and to genuinely motivate each play’s resolution. Death comes both easily and painfully to Miller.
I’m not sure that “All My Sons” is as relevant to audiences today, as some claim it to be, but the production at Barrington Stage reminds us that our history, whether chronicled on stage or film, is a history to maintain and to keep alive. Barrington Stage Company sets itself the great and worthy challenge of doing just that.
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