All My Sons
Stratford Festival 2016
Tom Patterson Theatre
Written by Arthur Miller
Directed by Martha Henry
Approximate running time: 2 hours and 45 minutes (with intervals of 10 and 15 minutes)
May 30-September 25
It may take much of the play before the real meaning of All My Sons is finally revealed but director Martha Henry ensures us her thought-provoking, nicely paced adaptation of the Arthur Miller classic is time very well spent.
With a stellar cast headed by Lucy Peacock and Joseph Ziegler in the lead roles and the theatre’s wonderfully restructured in-the-round arrangement, the production is both a visual and conceptual treat. In the case of the latter, the audience gains a completely new vantage point of the family’s back door/patio area.
Essentially the space becomes literally and figuratively a bridge to the garden where personal evaluations, life-changing revelations and ultimate truths are trotted out into the open air. On the surface it may represent a quaint family comfort – particularly in the past – but the moment lighting strikes the tree planted as a memorial to a son lost in the war, it becomes the place where lives fall apart.
It should be noted the soundscape design was the work of respected sound designer Todd Charlton who died early in the year, shortly after completing the project, and to whom the production is dedicated. With the majority of the action taking place in the past, it is ironically the only spot where any events – specifically the destruction of the tree – occur.
Superficially the play – based on a true story – appears relatively straightforward, based on the failings of a flawed individual. Miller was also influenced by Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, from which he took the idea of two business partners – one forced to take moral and legal responsibility for the other.
In All My Sons, plain-talking sixty-year-old Joe Keller, an under-educated but successful businessman, has been living a lie for more than three years. Exonerated after charges were levied against him for knowingly shipping damaged aircraft engine cylinder heads that resulted in the death of 21 young pilots, he avoided jail time by blaming partner and former neighbour Steve Deever, who is still imprisoned.
His wife Kate, while never openly admitting it, knows Joe is guilty but lives in denial while futilely mourning their older son Larry, who has been missing-in-action for three years and presumed dead. She refuses to accept reality.
While a thoughtful examination of dysfunctional characters on a personal level, on a broader scale playwright Arthur Miller painstakingly dissects the woes of a war-weary society, one that appears to equate success with unapologetic fiscal greed, monetary-driven expediency and a crass disregard for human life. Joe is the poster child of the American Dream gone tragically wrong.
The latter critique resulted in the left-leaning Miller being called to appear before Joe McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee during the Red Scare 1950s when hysterical U.S. government officials were conveniently discovering Communists – real or imagined – behind every cupboard door.
A slow-simmering tale, the introductory first act offers more background information and cursory glances of the characters’ more public personas before giving way to the more volatile second and third chapters. Henry expertly guides her actors through their paces, coaxing well-crafted performances from all.
Ziegler, engaging his son Chris in exchanges of fake jabs, hooks and crosses in playful outdoor boxing matchups before succumbing to the ugly reality of his life, is brilliant. A supposedly well-liked man, whose secret appears nonetheless well-known by so-called neighbourhood friends, he is the convoluted symbol of Miller’s failed American Dream.
A portrait of self-perpetuated pretense, Peacock’s Kate is a sight-to-behold – a masterful display of a soul being torn apart from within. One moment the epitome of suburban charm, grace and outward happiness, the troubled wife dissolves into gut-wrenching shrieks of despair and then, within the blink of an eye, back again to the more acceptable but unreal sense of domesticity.
Chris Keller, the 32-year-old son who has survived the war, is the moral compass of the play. Tim Campbell has a field day as an intensely philosophical man, always eager to please but deeply troubled by the fact that life goes on as normal, as if World War 11 had never happened. Part one of his character’s troubles occurs when he invites his brother’s fiancé Ann Deever to the Keller house to propose to her.
His plan stumbles because of his mother’s assertion that Larry will someday return. The second part is when he learns the devastating truth of his father’s heartless actions, those from the man he once idolized.
The solid company also features Sarah Afful’s intriguing, clear thinking Ann Deever; Michael Blake as her older brother George, a New York lawyer returning to stop her marriage to Chris, thus becoming a catalyst that helps destroys the Keller family; E.B. Smith as the successful but frustrated doctor Jim Bayliss; Lanise Antoine Shelley’s delightfully volatile but often secretive Sue, wife of the doctor with Rodrigo Belifuss and Jessica B. Hill rounding out the cast as the Lubeys, the whimsical horoscope drawing Frank and George’s one-time love interest but now thoroughly domesticated Lydia.
A tip of the hat to Maxwell Croft-Fraser and Brandon Scheidler as alternate Berts and Tommys.
Credit Henry for boldly introducing both the Deevers and Bayliss family as black members of what might have been considered in those days to be a purely white middle class American community. The end result is affording great actors like Afful and Blake (both standouts as the Macduff family in Macbeth), Smith and Shelley the opportunity to showcase their considerable skills as versatile actors – regardless of colour.
Wonderful package of entertainment - ****1/2 out of five stars.
Geoff Dale is a Woodstock-based freelance writer.