Becky Ann BakerChristian Camargo
Christopher Grey Misa
Arthur Miller’s All My Sons is how many years old? Sixty-one, did you say? From the Broadway revival that opened this week at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre on Broadway it’s hard to believe the play isn’t being written as it’s being performed.
Vigorously “well-made” and tumultuously timely, Arthur Miller’s early play, his stepping stone on the way to Death of a Salesman, is one that demands that attention be paid. The story of World War II-era aircraft parts manufacturer Joe Keller, whose misdeeds have haunted not only himself but his family following the death of his solder son, All My Sons is an outstandingly written vehicle for those embodying its four lead characters, the shoes of which are filled here by mostly capable performers.
As Joe Keller, John Lithgow is the throbbing heart of this production. Lithgow makes Keller so extraordinarily likable and despicably misguided that an audience is left in the palm of his hand, their sympathies vacillating with the upward and downward turn of his furrowed brow. Dianne Wiest as his wife Kate, provides a perfect foil, her calm, disbelieving ways in stark contrast to his seemingly no-nonsense view of things.
The character of Joe’s surviving soldier son, Chris, is brought to live by stage veteran Patrick Wilson, whose performance here further solidifies his dramatic mettle. Chris, as a character, must illicit immediate sympathy. His desire is to marry his slain brother’s school sweetheart; it’s no easy task to win over an audience with that early revelation. Luckily, Wilson manages with finesse. Later, as his character grapples – both physically and emotionally – with his father, sparks fly in an intense battle of wills. Wilson and Lithgow are a perfect match.
Of course, the real buzz surrounding the production is honed in on Katie Holmes’s Broadway debut as Ann Deever. Though her presence here is no disastrous mishap, her acting style is incongruous with the fine company that surrounds her. While others are busy inhabiting their characters, her oft-hollow performance calls attention to the demonstrative qualities of her acting. As an actress who’s new to the stage, she’s yet to discover the color and timbre of her voice. She flounders here in the role of Ann, a vocal, vigorous woman whose presence must be a commanding force in her interactions with the Keller family.
Director Simon McBurney for the most part guides the cast toward fine performances in this sturdy, if misguided, revival. McBurney, artistic director of the theatre company Complicite in Great Britain, (who are given special thanks in the Playbill) is up to many of his usual tricks here. The workings of the theatre are exposed, more so than in a typical production of a play on Broadway. The action, which takes place in “the back yard of the Keller home in the outskirts of an American town,” is placed mainly on Tom Pye’s central AstroTurf-covered platform set, with chain link gates and a central upstage screen door that allow for the actors’ comings and goings from visible holding bays to the sides of the stage, where they can be observed gearing up as if for an epic battle.
McBurney’s concept, which also utilizes distracting underscoring and ambient sound design by Christopher Shutt and Carolyn Downing, as well as occasionally illuminating projections (of arms manufacturing, military planes, etc.) by Finn Ross for Mesmer, ultimately does more to harm the play than to bolster it. In distancing an audience in an unnecessarily Brechtian manner (with projected time-setting placards and this visible actor approach) is at odds with this inherently naturalistic play. The production, which fails to trust Miller’s text while calling egregious attention to its stage directions, tries to make this story newly relevant for audiences though that work has already been done by the playwright.
The play, ultimately, is the thing here. No extra trimmings are needed to breathe life into All My Sons. Arthur Miller may be dead, but his characters are for the ages. “I know you’re no worse than most men,” the character of Chris admonishes his father as his secrets unravel, “but I thought you were better. I never saw you as a man. I saw you as my father.” Lines like these cut to the heart of human existence and the fallibility of our families and our places in society. You can underscore them all you want, slather them with melodramatic string music or project atmospheric images behind them. In the end, all we need to do as an audience is listen. It’s a shame there are so many bells and whistles and trappings in the way in this production.