There must be something in the cultural moment because two major and starry revivals of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” are opening this week. On Broadway, Roundabout’s production is helmed by Tracy Letts and Annette Bening, and at London’s Old Vic Theatre, the production stars Bill Pullman and Sally Field.
Before this production, “All My Sons” had not been seen on Broadway in just over a decade. The last version was directed by English experimentalist Simon McBurney and used many of his signature innovations, such as seating the entire cast on stage to watch the action unfold. Other Miller plays have been revived more recently in two productions helmed by iconoclastic European director Ivo van Hove — “The Crucible,” and a stunning reinterpretation of “A View From the Bridge.” The latter interpretation was so revelatory I was convinced that it would no longer be possible to appreciate a more traditional directorial approach to any play in the Miller cannon.
Then I watched director Jack O’Brien’s current staging. (O’Brien stepped in after “creative differences” concerning diverse casting caused Gregory Mosher to withdraw from directing the play. Interestingly, O’Brien also directed an acclaimed 1987 television version of the play that was notable for being a more faithful version of Miller’s classic.) Simultaneously a valentine to the kind of naturalism that the American theater does best, and a reminder that the virtues of the proverbial “well-made play” when impeccably realized are never passé, this is a deeply moving and finely wrought production.
Apart from the kudos owed to O’Brien, the other factor that sets this iteration apart is the utterly transcendent performance by Bening as “Kate,” the troubled matriarch of the Keller family. The actor, known for her film and television work, returns to Broadway in peak form and is nothing short of mesmerizing. Her command of vocal characterization alone — she summons a flat, deliberative affect that dips into a thrilling low register when the exigencies of the plot demand it — would require returning to see this performance a second time. Completely obliterating her natural elegance, she creates a finely calibrated portrait of an ordinary middle-class woman almost destroyed by the consequences of harboring a corrosive secret. Bening’s total transformation is harrowing and profound.
This production of the play is set in 1947, the year in which it was first performed on Broadway. Scenic designer Douglas W. Schmidt and Jane Greenwood’s costumes elicit Norman Rockwell nostalgia with their conjuring of a pretty and pleasant “All-American” postwar idyll. Everything looks almost too good to be true and of course, circumstances eventually demonstrate that to be the case.
Inspired by actual events, the plot turns on uncovering the unacknowledged crimes of a successful businessman, Joe Keller (Tracy Letts in a convincing and stalwart portrayal). Joe lives with his wife, Kate and surviving son, Chris (Benjamin Walker) returned from active service in World War II. (Another son remains missing in action.) With skill and empathy, Walker conveys Chris’ inner struggles with survivor guilt and his character’s conviction that the cost of the war has not been sufficiently acknowledged. Particularly in the scenes with Bening, the acting “chemistry” between the two was palpable, and I never doubted their relationship as mother and son.
Chris is in love with his brother’s former girlfriend, Ann Deever, and deeply troubled by his mother’s unwillingness or inability to give up hoping for her missing son’s return. Chris asks Ann (Francesca Carpanini in a refreshingly assertive rendering of the role) to visit his home so that he can propose to her. It transpires that Ann’s family used to live next door to the Kellers and that her father was Joe’s business partner. Both men were arrested for knowingly selling defective engine parts to the Air Force, an act that resulted in the death of 21 pilots. Joe appealed his conviction and now lives freely, while Ann’s father remains in prison.
The play explores the difference between the responsibilities one has to oneself and one’s family in contrast to what one owes to community and society at large. (Not to mention the evils of American capitalism, a theme making the rounds in the New York circuit and just explored in “The Lehman Trilogy.”) Miller populates the Keller’s world with neighbors and friends who illustrate this tension. Dr. Jim Bayliss (Michael Hayden in prime world weary Chekhovian mode) dreams of a larger purpose, but is caught up in domestic obligations to his wife and family. In turn, his wife, Sue Bayliss (a tart Chinasa Ogbuagu), is determined to keep her husband’s feet firmly on the ground, preferably in his own backyard and not the Keller’s.
Presumably the casting of an actor of color means us to rely on the conventions of “color blindness,” but I found myself wondering whether Ogbuagu’s “Sue” might not have a few very good reasons to aggressively protect her family’s position in middle-class suburbia. This lent a new flavor to the dynamic between the characters. Conversely, Frank (Nehal Joshi) and Lydia Lubey (Jenni Barber, whose daffy charm gives us some lighter moments) seem to represent the unquestioning ordinary folk. As they illustrate, the good life consists of three children, a paid-off mortgage and a refusal to admit boredom.
This vision is disrupted, however, when Ann’s brother George (Hampton Fluker) arrives with news from their father — both Deever siblings seem to act as messengers of fate in this bucolic setting. Yet when he comes face-to-face with Keller’s, Fluker beautifully shows the painful conflict between longing to succumb to the Keller’s welcoming and familiar embrace and in wanting to avenge his own family.
One definition of a classic might be the way in which the works contrive to continue to speak to us in the present. It should feel, as we experience them, as though they are essential viewing right now. Miller may have written “All My Sons” 70 years ago, but his themes and preoccupations remain contemporary in a way this superb production makes effortless.
“All My Sons” opened at the American Airlines Theatre on April 22, 2019.
Creative: Written by Arthur Miller; Original Music by Bob James; Directed by Jack O’Brien; Scenic Design by Douglas W. Schmidt; Costume Design by Jane Greenwood; Lighting Design by Natasha Katz; Sound Design by John Gromada; Video and Projection Design: Jeff Sugg.
Producers: Roundabout Theatre Company.
Cast: Annette Bening, Tracy Letts, Benjamin Walker, Francesca Carpanini, Hampton Fluker, Michael Hayden, Jenni Barber, Alexander Bello, Monte Greene, Nehal Joshi, Chinasa Ogbuagu.