Written when he was thirty, as a last attempt at playwriting after a string of plays failed to garner attention from producers or directors, All My Sons is the first of Arthur Millers’ four big plays (the others being Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, and A View from the Bridge, which were all written consecutively). In it, we can see the seeds of what he would continue to explore in increasing depth and nuance throughout his career. And although you could perhaps pass All My Sons off as an ‘Ibsenesque’ play, it is in fact just as devastatingly meaty and dread-full as all his others, and grapples with issues of morality and ethics, consequences, responsibility, denial, guilt, and profiteering. And it seems just as relevant now as it did almost seventy years ago.
Directed by Kip Williams for Sydney Theatre Company, and staged within the cavernous Roslyn Packer Theatre, All My Sons is the story of the Keller family as they wait for their son Larry, currently Missing In Action after WWII, to come home. But as relationships form, old unhealed wounds and barely-suppressed secrets are torn open, and the lie under the floorboards of the Kellers’ stability and wealth is laid bare for all to see.
There’s an epic kind of scale to Williams’ production, but it never overlooks the humanness at the story’s heart. Miller’s story is operatic in scope – both in terms of scale, and the ways the voices, characters, and story fit together – and Alice Babidge’s design of the family house is overwhelming and dominating. A large black minimalist silhouette of the rear of the house, as seen from the back yard, is a gestural nod to the American Dream (which Miller would later unpick in Death of a Salesman). When the play opens, we are right there, almost up against the house, and we can’t see it until our perspective changes and the house begins ever-so-subtly to recede into the depths of the stage. Windows and doors appear, lighted squares in the darkness, and the family – the house –comes alive. As the play continues, and Miller’s play kicks into gear, ratcheting the tension and drama continually upwards (though never gratuitously), so too does Babidge’s set continue to recede, until the dream is no longer attainable. Her costumes too, are simple but not simplistic, and create character-types in our heads in an instant; as we get to know them, we realise that the surface does not always show what’s underneath. Nick Schlieper’s lighting is similarly simple, but there is also an elegance, a precise focus achieved through simple lighting which focuses the drama even more acutely. Max Lyandvert’s subtle sound design and deceptively naïve-sounding score add a poignant touch to this world, and although it is briefly heard in scene-changes, the haunting elegance of the tune hints at something darker, larger, and more dread-full than we’d like to acknowledge.
Williams’ cast are a fine-tuned group, and although some characters appear for a fraction of a scene, they are not small parts, nor small actors, and each character feels lived-in, real, as though they have happened to find their lives being played out upon this stage. There’s a blustering sense of self-conviction to John Howard’s Joe Keller, and his early scenes set up a character for whom there is only one way out. His bluster and gruff pride are moving, but we get a glimmer of the way he seems to be trying to convince everyone else (just as much as himself) that there is nothing to worry about, that everything will work itself out, even though he knows he’s backed himself into a corner; his growing realisation is both moving and harrowing. Robyn Nevin’s Kate Keller is fiercely defiant of the truth, and tries to hold onto the shred of hope that her son isn’t dead, that everything is fine and always has been, and there is something reminiscent of her Violet Venable from Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer that makes this play, and her character, more harrowing to watch.
Chris Ryan’s Chris Keller is passionate about what he believes in, but we see him struggle with the truth as much as the rest of his family. When he returns at the end, his mind made up, he is the catalyst for the Kellers’ ultimate downfall, and the result of his revelations is terrible as much as it dramatically thrilling. Eryn Jean Norvill’s Ann Deever, Chris’ fiancée and previously Larry’s, is iron-willed, but as the daughter of Joe’s disgraced former business partner, she finds herself conflicted in her desires and actions, caught in the headlights of the approaching tragedy. Her grace under pressure, and her resolve are incredibly affecting and, like Nevin, there are shades of her Catherine from Suddenly Last Summer here which make her performance all the more powerful. Josh McConville, as Ann’s older brother George, gives a performance which is devoid of his usual tics and neurotic mannerisms, and there is a rawness to his despair, a conviction to expose the truth which is powerfully affecting.
In each of Kip Williams’ productions, he investigates the use of the theatrical space and its relation to the text. And as this conceit crystalises for each play, he gives us a poetic tour de force of theatricality which is often breathtaking, and in some cases magical. You might remember the tomb-like rows of white beds in Romeo and Juliet or the rotating mansion; the fog-filled theatre in Macbeth; the conservatorium (and its cinematic mediation) in Suddenly Last Summer; the abstracted house, and the fire in Children of the Sun; the museum, and the final scene in Love and Information; the pile of earth in The Golden Age… Each gesture comes to bear strongly upon his exploration of the themes and ideas within each play. Here, we wait on the edge of our seats, hearts in mouth, for the terrible conclusion we know is coming. And as the family reaches the tipping point, as the ultimate tragedy unfolds itself, as Joe Keller goes inside to retrieve his coat, Williams presents us with his final poetic gesture: the house laid bare, in skeletal form, before us, using the full height of the theatre to full effect. And in this one simple moment, the whole play comes hurtling into focus, and we see Miller’s devastating conclusion, spotlight and unavoidable.
In the program, Miller explains the misconception of tragedy, illustrating how important optimism is to the successful portrayal of tragedy. The more optimistic the characters’ outlook, the more devastating the tragedy when it finally unfolds itself upon their doorstep. In All My Sons, just as in Death of a Salesman which seems very much a deeper exploration of similar concerns, the Kellers’ belief that they have done nothing wrong, that everything will work out, that there is nothing to worry about is their ultimate downfall as they have to face the truth they have tried so hard to deny. This is where the play gains its power from, where Williams’ production shifts into precise focus, where Miller’s interests come into the cold hard light. And it is every inch as thrilling as it is devastating.
Part of what makes this production so thrilling, such a joy to watch, is its robust handling of Miller’s style. At the time All My Sons was written, Tennessee Williams – the other mid-twentieth century American powerhouse of a playwright – was writing A Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie. Both playwrights, while interesting in navigating the notion of truth, did so quite differently: Tennessee Williams was working in the “subjective landscape of the soul,” to quote playwright Sarah Ruhl, and was writing plays about personal truth; Miller, on the other hand, built “buildings [to see] whether they stood up,” and was concerned with “philosophical truth – idealism versus pragmatism,” as Kip Williams says. In All My Sons, we get the cold hard light of Joe’s truth in his line, late in Act Three, when he realises the scale of his actions. “They were all my sons,” he says, and in that one line, the entirety of Millers’ play suddenly coalesces into one crystalline line, one moment, and we get the full force of the moral weight of the play right there.