Pairing Arthur Miller’s probing social realism with Brit director Simon McBurney’s multidisciplinary experimental approach was a gamble, but the payoff in “All My Sons” is considerable. The first Broadway revival of the playwright’s work since his death in 2005, the production balances theatrical artifice with heightened emotion, seeding anxiety deep in the collective pit of the audience’s stomach and then amplifying it steadily until the shattering final scene. Liberally mixing Brechtian presentation with cinematic flourishes, this is a commanding illustration of the power of theater and a searing drama of morality and conscience that has as much to say to America now as it did in 1947.
Back when “All My Sons” premiered, garnering Miller his first success, the play spoke to a nation emerging from war and eyeing prosperity while still shaking off the memory of economic depression. The country now is heading more or less in the reverse direction — the war in Iraq grinds slowly on toward a hazy resolution, the fallout from unchecked greed has become apparent, and financial meltdown has made recession loom large and loud. Miller was tapping into a mood of self-reflection, and, six decades later, it’s almost bizarre that the play’s connection to the reality of the times remains so strong.
From the moment the ensemble steps onto the stage — led by John Lithgow as he welcomes the audience, introduces the play and sets the scene, followed by an attention-grabbing storm worthy of “King Lear” — it’s clear we’re in forceful hands.
While this is very much a naturalistic American drama in the mid-20th century mold, Miller made no secret of his Greco-Ibsen influences. McBurney acknowledges those diverse traditions as well as more experimental forms. He shows us the tricks and mechanics of theater, uses film devices like underscoring and projections to intensify drama or foster evocative connections, and coaxes layered interpretations from the actors that embrace grandiose, melodramatic theatricality on the surface while scratching away underneath to uncover the characters’ wounded humanity in painfully real terms.
There’s no playing it safe here on any level, yet the complex approach feels organic — every unconventional touch serves to break open the drama, not simply to embellish it. Some no doubt will find the treatment overwrought, but like it or not, this is far more interesting than another reverential remount.
At the center of the play’s family conflict are Greek tragedy staples of guilt, culpability, grief, death and the timely issue of profiteering from war. Lithgow effectively plays against his patrician air as Joe Keller, an uneducated man from humble roots who has achieved middle-class comfort running a machine parts plant. But that well-being has come at a price. During WWII, he knowingly allowed defective aircraft engine cylinders to be shipped, allowing his partner to take the rap when 21 American pilots were killed as a result.
The gnawing question that drives the drama is whether or not Joe’s family and neighbors are aware of his guilt. His wife Kate (Dianne Wiest) waits with tireless optimism for the return of her son Larry, declared missing in action three years earlier. His other son Chris (Patrick Wilson) has returned from the war and now plans to marry his brother’s sweetheart, Ann (Katie Holmes), whose father was imprisoned over the airplane parts scandal.
Using only a clapboard rear wall with a screen door, a lawn, chairs and bits of chain-link fencing, plus the tree that’s portentously felled in the opening storm, designer Tom Pye’s minimalist set defines the untroubled veneer of middle-American suburbia with crisp simplicity. But the dark fissures in this world are etched by Paul Anderson’s increasingly sepulchral lighting, by Christopher Shutt and Carolyn Dowling’s brooding soundscape and by Finn Ross’ insinuating projections.
When not directly involved in scenes, the cast sit on a visible line of chairs in the wings, adding the weight of silent witnesses to the Keller family’s steady implosion and to the corruption of the American Dream. Watching the actors prepare for their entrances creates a sense of unsettling anticipation for their confrontations, and following their protracted exits allows those exchanges to continue resonating.
McBurney and cast orchestrate the friction, suspicion, admissions and eruptions of blame in dynamic fortissimo mode. Not only are the expected face-offs between father and son or husband and wife powerfully played, but the straight-talking pronouncements of outsiders — notably Becky Ann Baker and Damian Young as the Kellers’ neighbors, and Christian Camargo as Ann’s brother — are delivered with stinging precision. Even the most peripheral figures communicate a life beyond the text.
Lithgow’s descent from jovial warmth to self-righteous defensiveness to crushed accountability is drawn in bold strokes. Wilson also does compelling work. The actor’s wholesomeness and seemingly intrinsic honesty make his character’s idealism ennobling rather than foolish (Chris has come back from the war a changed man, bitterly disappointed that America seems unchanged), and his physical clashes with his father are shockingly visceral. And in a tremendously moving performance of God-like judgment, compassion, rage and sorrow at human failings, Wiest makes Kate the drama’s howling center.
While much of the advance media attention has focused on Holmes, she handles her role as death’s messenger with neither distinction nor embarrassment. She lacks the technique to match her co-stars’ depths, working hard at conveying purpose, gravity and a contradictory duality between innocence and sharpness. McBurney’s non-naturalistic, onion-like approach calls for peeling back layers, and even if Holmes doesn’t quite manage this, she projects an attractive modesty that makes her part of the ensemble, not an obtrusive bit of celebrity casting.
The only bothersome weakness is the choice to dissolve from the operatic final tableau to a projected image of a contemporary crowd scene, indicating a reluctance to trust the audience. Miller’s still-cogent play and this emotionally charged production offer enough haunting reminders throughout of who and where we are as a country and a people, without the need for a closing visual assist.