All My Sons
By Arthur Miller
Directed by Howard Davies
Cast: David Suchet (Joe Keller), Zoe Wanamaker (Kate Keller – Mother) , Jemima Rooper (Ann Deever), Stephen Campbell Moore (Chris), Daniel Lapaine (George Deever)
Missing in action. A play is greatly fortunate when it receives a performance better than it is. The current revival of Arthur Miller’s family drama from 1947, All My Sons, needs that kind of help. You hear hollow echoes throughout of socialist catch phrases and pat Depression-era notions about the working Joe as mythic hero. Money stinks. Bosses are glint-eyed bastards. In the Soviet system such virtuous cant was backed up by totalitarian terror: if you didn’t write a paean to the crews who built a new dam in Omsk, the secret police were ready to stimulate your inspiration with a midnight visit. Miller wanted to be a good leftist and a great writer at the same time. We can be thankful that his artistic ambitiousness won out. Otherwise, All My Sons would be like a Christmas pudding studded with thumbtacks — as it is, the action stops for mini sermons on one-worldism, war profiteers, the corrupting decay of capitalism, and so on. Finger wagging isn’t helpful when you aim to be the working-class Sophocles. Who cares if Oedipus paid his charioteer a decent wage at the crossroad to Thebes?
Because its hot topics are lifeless now, the play presents problems for any production. So thoroughly does director Howard Davies hide these pitfalls that his version bursts like an incendiary bomb with an hour-long fuse. We see that the bomb will go off the instant that David Suchet and Zoe Wanamaker come on stage as middle-aged businessman Joe Keller and his wife Kate. The setting is a summer morning in the leafy back yard of a prosperous house in Somewhere, USA. The script asks for them to act like normal examples of suburban bonhomie, their household a magnet for neighborly drop-ins and kids running across the lawn. That’s how actors normally enter a drama, with a customary easiness that naturalism demands before the vise starts to squeeze, but here Joe and Kate are suffocating with anguish, and we aren’t remotely fooled by their façades. With the tone pitched so high at the outset, where can they possibly go? It’s as if Lady Macbeth’s first line was to ask for blood remover.
The plot centers on Joe’s activities during World War II, when his machine shop produced a batch of defective airplane parts. The defects were masked, and as a result twenty-one airmen flying P-40s crashed and were killed. Joe managed to evade jail; his partner George became the fall guy and three years later still sits in prison, a broken man. The crime poisons the air that Joe and especially Kate try to sweeten by pretending that life has returned to normal. Their uneasy poise is broken when their grown son, Chris, falls in love with the partner’s daughter, Ann. Her visit to the Keller house starts the long day’s journey into night, bringing up confessions, recrimination, the war between fathers and sons, lingering grief after war, and a mother’s paralyzing hope that her first son, Larry, who went missing in action over the China Sea, might still be alive. As you can see, this setup, inherited from Eugene O’Neill by way of the house of Atreus, is packed with enough tension that the passing sermonettes can be overlooked.
As it happens, the genius of the two lead actors is unleashed precisely by giving Joe and Kate nowhere to go except toward deeper torments, and the play is skewed, becoming a tour of Hell rather than a series of revealed sins. The ravaging effect of sin is there before our eyes. This production finds more tragedy in bleeding like a sacrificial animal on the altar of guilt than Miller ever anticipated, I suspect (check out the 1948 film version where Edward G. Robinson, the most saturnine actor to become a Hollywood star, is breezing along in a straw boater compared to the searing Suchet). Since they are gods on the London theater scene, the crowds flocking to see Suchet and Wanamaker expect a first-rate acting duel. Boy, do they get one. Joe’s booming dominance gives Suchet a riveting presence, his caterpillar eyebrows black with rage, while Wanamaker, moving ginerly through the paralysis of grief, offers a master class in the nuance of pain.
A measure of classical tragedy is that the audience should be terrified. This production manages that, and it manages a pained catharsis, too. With all hope wrenched from her soul, Wanamker’s Kate wraps her son’s face in her hands, “Don’t take this on yourself. Forget it. Live!” The audience is devastated by then, but Wanamaker tops herself by walking back into the house, emitting a sob with every slow step, that is unearthly in its power (the New York Times reviewer, in the midst of a fatuous, nearly shameful pan of this production, notes that he heard the loudest sobbing from an audience member that he had ever heard in his life). I doubt that All My Sons will ever receive another incarnation to match this triumph.