“The war is over,” cries Kate Keller (Laurie Metcalf), the anguished matriarch at the darkened heart of “All My Sons,” but there’s no denying the battle to the quick being waged amid the chirping crickets and drooping foliage of the Keller family backyard.
Howard Davies’ revival of Arthur Miller’s first Broadway success was one of the high points of last year, deservedly winning four Olivier Awards, though not until long after its Cottesloe engagement had come to an end. It has returned, four of its roles recast, rehoused — not entirely for the better — in the larger Lyttelton auditorium.
But even if the scalpel-sharp corrosions of that earlier, far more intimate stand have been diluted in a general drift toward histrionics, this nonetheless remains one of the most animated — not to mention agitated — Miller revivals to appear on either side of the Atlantic in recent years. And in Laurie Metcalf, making a forceful British stage debut, the production has an honorable heir to Olivier-laureled Julie Walters: In their separate but complementary ways, both performances remind us that Miller’s women carry real theatrical muscle even if it’s the men in his work who go to an early grave, ground down by the lie that is the great American dream.
The revelation of this “All My Sons” is the equal time it gives all members of a household that has tended to be dominated in the past by Joe Keller, the father whose barbarous ethics during wartime prompted the aerial suicide of one son and are precipitating an irrevocable split from the other. But one intends no discredit whatsoever to James Hazeldine, who needs only to curb a staginess that has crept in since he first played the part last summer, to suggest that Joe is folded into the familial malaise in this “All My Sons,” rather than the chief exponent of it.
If anything, Ben Daniels’ rampaging Chris Keller — the idealist whose views on social responsibility are violated by his profiteering father — emerges as the man of this particular Keller household, not least when forced into playing the putative jailer to his de facto murderer of a dad.
On the distaff side, Walters last summer proved so watchable that her fierce hold over the play seemed at the time as if it could be simply a function of personality. That Metcalf accomplishes much the same through different means tips the hand to Davies’ direction, which puts Kate center-stage for a storm-tossed prologue and then leaves her almost fanatical denial to pervade the action even when Kate has gone indoors. Although arguably too young for the part (she could be Hazeldine’s daughter, not his wife), the Steppenwolf-trained thesp gives a moving account of a woman who sees ill portents at every turn, whether it be a commemorative tree that suddenly loses its life just as her son has done or a fallen petal prompting a wistful “no more roses” spoken with nearly unbearable ache. The actress’s physical business, too, a moment of onstage nausea included, always seems attuned to the mother’s God-fearing and panicky ways, while Metcalf can toss off wry one-liners with comic acerbity.
Among the other newcomers, Madeleine Potter cuts a less lachrymose Ann Deaver — the dead brother’s girlfriend, now being courted by Chris — than her predecessor (though Potter, in contrast to Metcalf, seems a shade old for the role), even if Nigel Cooke doesn’t quite possess Duncan Bell’s quietly scalding command as the neighboring doctor who, one might say, has dined with darkness. Still, such comparisons will hardly matter to newcomers to the play or to those theatergoers who have so far been standing and cheering at the curtain call (not a London inevitability as in New York). “We all got hit by the same lightning,” we are told, as the Kellers survey the moral detritus on view. At this production’s most electric moments, an avid audience is likely to agree.