All My Sons
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 12, 2008
If you see only one show on Broadway this year, make it All My Sons. Really, this production is that good—it's the most powerful, thoroughly satisfying theatre experience I've had in a very long time...maybe since Angels in America. The ingredients of the triumph are the obvious ones: a sturdy, classic American play (by Arthur Miller) that's being looked at as if it were brand new by a visionary director (Simon McBurney), and performed by a superlative cast, anchored by three stars (John Lithgow, Dianne Wiest, and Patrick Wilson) in remarkably textured, deeply felt performances. The fact that this play about rampant capitalism's toll on the human conscience feels particularly resonant at this moment in history certainly contributes to the potency of this event.
All My Sons, written by Miller in 1947, tells the story of the Keller family, who live in the American Midwest. Joe, the patriarch, runs a successful factory that, during World War II, manufactured cylinder heads for military aircraft. A defective batch made it out of the factory and resulted in the crashing of planes and the deaths of 21 American pilots. Joe's partner, Steve Deever, is now in prison because the company knowingly sold the cracked cylinder heads. Joe, exonerated after a brief sentence, oversees the factory (which has switched over to peacetime production) and holds forth over the neighbor kids (whom he has convinced that he is some kind of detective).
Joe's elder son Chris, who served in the war, lives at home and works at the factory. Joe's younger son, Larry, has been MIA for nearly three years. Though Chris is certain that Larry is dead, Kate, their mother, clings steadfastly to the belief that Larry will come home someday.
But as the play opens, a tree planted in his honor/memory in the Keller backyard has been blown over by a violent storm. (Director McBurney begins the drama with this event, in fact.) It is indeed a foreshadowing of the explosive events to follow.
The catalyst for these events is the arrival of Ann Deever, Joe's partner's daughter and Larry's fiancee. Ann has broken with her father because of what he purportedly did during the war. She and Chris are now deeply in love and want to marry. The first obstacle to their happiness is Kate—such a marriage would require her to acknowledge Larry's death, which she swears she'll never do. The second obstacle—much more unexpected—is Ann's brother George, who arrives at the Keller home following a visit with his father in the penitentiary.
All My Sons explores some of the same themes that Miller's more famous Death of a Salesman tackles—how the so-called American Dream can pervert a good man's value system, and how a father's sins are (or are not) visited upon a son. But the real center of this play has to do more with the notions of responsibility and accountability. Here's one of my favorite speeches from the play, spoken by Chris to Ann as he reflects on what he learned from the men under his command during the war:
They didn't die; they killed themselves for each other. I mean that exactly: a little more selfish and they'd be here today. And I got an idea—watching them go down. Everything was being destroyed, see, but it seemed to me that one new thing was being made. A kind of—responsibility. Man for man.
McBurney roots his production firmly in this epic notion that we are all the keepers of our brothers (and sisters, and daughters, and sons); he recognizes the raw element of classic tragedy at the play's core. And his deceptively sly prologue—in which the entire company appears on Tom Pye's stark heartland American lawn set and Lithgow addresses the audience, like the Stage Manager in Our Town, cautioning us to turn off our cellphones and so forth—manages to reiterate how American is this particular tragedy. And then McBurney's stars' realization of the three central figures of the play—Lithgow as the father, Wiest as the mother, and Wilson as the son—make the whole thing cut all the more deeply by reminding us that the pure and seemingly unconditional bonds of familial love are what is being broken as the play moves inexorably toward its climax and conclusion.
The performances of Lithgow, Wiest, and Wilson are so authentic, so layered, so rich in context and complexity—and their chemistry as a family is so convincing—that the painful revelations that pile up late in the play are palpably felt in the audience. In particular, a moment when Wilson's Chris uncovers one of his father's rotten lies explodes into a raw, terrifying battle between son and father that rips straight through to an observer's heart. Not only are Wilson and Lithgow in astonishing technical good form here, they model the eternal rivalry between fathers and sons through the ages with extraordinary vigor.
Solid supporting turns are provided by Christian Camargo as George; Danielle Ferland as the Kellers' neighbor, Lydia, who once held a torch for George; Damian Young as the neighbor on the other side, an intellectually questing doctor named Jim Bayliss; and Becky Ann Baker as Jim's pragmatic wife, Sue. Katie Holmes delivers a competent performance as Ann Deever, though one wishes for a bit more depth and conviction in her work; this may resolve itself over time.
McBurney doesn't always trust Miller's script as much as he ought to: there are a few places in the play where he overpowers the simple but eloquent language with projections or other effects that just aren't needed. But most of the time, he's right on target in letting All My Sons speak right from Miller's heart to our own. It is a message that we fervently need to hear.