Some plays simply don’t need illustration to be understood or illuminated, especially if they’re post-modern twentieth century standards. I don’t mean to say new interpretations or a certain degree of exploration for new eras are verboten, but once you pull from the repertoire of drama created in a media-savvy world—a world where movies, radio, television, nightly news and etc. are starting to be or have fully become part of the environmental matrix—you also pull from the oevre of authors who are fully capable of expressing their intentions in detail—and do. Beckett and Ionesco let you know you’re entering worlds of surreality; Thornton Wilder makes it clear that he means to examine tropes and archetypes using naturalistic characters in a ritualistic setting; In Streetcar and Menagerie, Tennessee Williams pretty much defines the state of lyric realism, through selectively poetic dialogue and set description; and Arthur Miller makes it perfectly clear when he wants to do more than just tell a straightforward story.
And All My Sons, his melodrama about the ethical responsibility that comes with achieving the American dream, is as straightforward as they come. It doesn’t need stark symbolism—melodrama makes all such emphases implicit. Nor does it need ritualistic staging (i.e. all the actors visible on the sides, awaiting their cue to enter the playing area frame); all that does is pull focus from what is supposed to be Greek tragedy rewrit as everyday life.
Yet director Simon McBurney has put such hey check out the direction mitts all over the revival at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre. The good news, such as it may be, is that this layering on of an extraneous and inorganic theatrical language is neither intended nor utilized in the “consciousness expanding” (i.e. genuinely distortive) manner of avant garde hucksters, like that bewildering New York Theatre Workshop favorite Ivo Van Hove, who never met a 60s-style abstractionist pretension he didn’t like. No, the form, substance, outline and narrative balance of Miller’s play are preserved, and McBurney clearly cares about them. But what’s lost, first, is intimacy. Any time you add overt stylization to a piece that doesn’t request it, you add distance between the play and the audience, because you’re adding an additional filter between the play and their perception of it.
Now, I’ve not read any interviews with Mr. McBurney on his approach, but I’m willing to bet his intention, or one of them, was to strip the play to its essentials, to have it look like the classic Greek tragedy its structure emulates, only in the garb of Americana. What he has done instead, though, is strip away one of its essentials. You see, it’s one thing when Thornton Wilder creates Grovers Corners out of a bare stage and utility props in Our Town. He’s celebrating the simple things in life, the things we take for granted, good people going through an honest day as best they can, repeating the cycles of life handed down and passing forward. Ah, but Mr. Miller’s tragic hero, Joe Keller (John Lithgow) is not so simple. He presents himself to the world as an honest businessman, but in fact what he did—what he has legally gotten away with doing—is sell airplane parts he knew were faulty to the Army, inadvertently causing the deaths of some 20 young pilots. And allowed his ex-partner to take the fall for it as well. This is a man with secrets. With things to cover up.
You don’t want the actor playing him to lead his company of fellow players in an unscripted walk to center stage where they face the audience while, as a kind of prologue, he politely asks the audience to turn off their cell phones & etc. and then, from an acting version of the script, reads the title of the play, the name of the author and the description of time and place. Because this shows you the actor as an unaffected and honest human being. Which only emphasizes the artifice when he re-enters in character as a man full of hale, hearty and well-practiced bluster. Because, even for those of us who know the play, the bluster should be able to fool us too. For a time. Else how are we to believe his ability to fool himself? Denying guilt involves rationalization, and the longer you get away with it, the more your lifestyle adjusts to it, the more stable and normalized it becomes. Like any good defendant, Joe has to be able to sell reasonable doubt.
You also kind of want to see Joe’s house, not a symbolic door and a symbolic window. Because the house is his own symbol; the evidence of his success and public vindication. And you don’t want the young tree a wind has knocked over to keep pulling focus from that house. That tree should be the first small rip in the fabric of the beautiful things that surround it, a portent; not the one significant three-dimensional property onstage. Put another way: If the guilty verdict is pre-determined, why bother having the trial?
This trade off of realism for symbolism also affects the playing styles, which are all over the map. Mr. Lithgow’s Joe is almost a musical theatre figure, his bluster a little too Santa-like because he’s protesting too much before the threat of exposure emerges. Diane Wiest as his wife—trying to keep the secret and deny it at the same time—is like a haunted spectre of doom, as if she’s wandered in from Long Day’s Journey into Night. Patrick Wilson, as the grown son who genuinely believes in his dad’s honor, hits just the right notes and at just the right pitch for this brand of Arthur Miller play—and ironically looks to have been beamed in by Scotty from another production. And poor Katie Holmes proves another variation on the insufficiently stage-trained film star, although, to be fair, she shows potential. Her line readings are undeniably intelligent, if not inspired, but they do, alas, sound like readings, and there’s too much force in her delivery, as if she’s self-conscious about the need to project. But here, too, the director’s eye and ear for balance and appropriateness seems to have been misfiring; not having any inside knowledge of the production’s rehearsal process, I can’t make assertions, but it certainly seems as if Ms. Holmes’s performance could have guided to some more humanistic modulation and nuance. But then, what with the supporting players, the various neighbors, etc. representing likewise a bizarre mix of (mostly exaggerated) styles, nuance doesn’t really seem to have been on the table.
All this said, there may indeed be a way to credibly present All My Sons in a bare-bones style. But I think the first thing you’d have to do is trust the play to take care of symbols and meaning; for moral content, it’s Miller’s least ambiguous play. Which—I believe, anyway—is why you have to present it at its most unpretentiously human…