The American dream turns into a nightmare blame game in Miller’s post-war tragedy
London’s Old Vic Theatre is a leader in the current revelatory series of revivals of the plays of Arthur Miller. The American Clock, his ‘wide-screen’ kaleidoscopic examination of the disintegration of the American dream, through the Great Depression, Wall Street Crash and into World War II, enjoyed a rare revival at this address earlier this year. It’s a logical coup to follow it with this close-up, set immediately post-war, homing in on one family, one community and the ramifications of the actions of one family man.
From the moment factory owner and self-made man Joe Keller strolls into the verdant yard of his comfortable suburban mansion to enjoy good natured joshing over the Sunday papers with his neighbour, local GP Dr Jim Bayliss, there is a sense of hidden tension and secrets beneath the easy bonhomie. Designer Max Jones’s attractively detailed naturalistic set is dominated by a fallen apple tree, planted in honour of Larry, the Keller’s elder son, a fighter pilot missing in action. Portentously, the tree has blown down in a summer storm in the month of what should be his 27th birthday.
It’s no secret that faulty aircraft parts manufactured in Joe’s factory caused the loss of other fathers’ sons. Joe’s deputy Steve Deever took the rap and remains in prison. And while it’s known in the community that Joe, although exonerated, is at least equally guilty, the Kellers’ lives seem unaffected on the surface. Joe’s wife Kate refuses to accept that Larry is dead and his younger son Chris, a fighter pilot who did come home from the war, wants to marry Larry’s girl Ann – daughter of Steve. Moreover, the Deevers used to live next door in what is now the Doctor’s house, so pressures and relationships are indeed complex and uneasy.
Yet, for a play that unfolds like a Greek tragedy, it’s surprising how much appreciative audience laughter these opening scenes evoke in Jeremy Herrin’s production, finely calibrated to project Miller’s story arc. Because that’s the point: drama – especially tragedy – is an interruption of routine and it’s clear the Keller’s carefully constructed routine is about to be interrupted.
Bill Pullman’s bluff Joe may display an apparent self-confidence worthy of the overweening Donald Trump, but he makes it clear this is a shell he has built around himself, not just to counter feelings of inadequacy brought on by his lack of ‘a college education’, but to deny the truth.
Sally Field’s extraordinary Kate is a diminutive, defiant figure, vibrating with a desperate hope and longing, steely, terrifying and ultimately heartbreaking in the shell of denial she too has constructed around herself.
Jenna Coleman, in her professional stage debut, displays warm intelligence as a graceful and attractive Ann. It’s no wonder both Keller brothers wanted to marry her. She is especially convincing meeting steel with steel to defy Kate’s formidable dismissal of her engagement to Chris with the revelation that unravels the Kellers’ unreality.
Colin Morgan is a likeable Chris, equally sincere as dutiful son and in his ardent courtship of Ann. He revels in the self-deprecating humour Miller gifts him: “I like to keep abreast of my ignorance”, he demurs on his fondness for the latest nonfiction books.
Equally, once the air is thick with the wings of proverbial chickens coming home to roost, thanks to Oliver Denver’s fine bitter George Deever, bent on justice for his jailed father “the patsy”, Morgan’s Chris is devastating, delivering the ultimate blow to his father: "I know you're no worse than other men, but I thought you were better.”
There are fine performances in the supporting roles that build this community of neighbours. Sule Rimi’s fine dry Dr Bayliss spars with Joe, and Gunnar Cauthery’s febrile astrologer Frank Lubey offers Kate straws to clutch, averring that no harm could have befallen Larry on 25 November, the day his plane disappeared, because it was his “favourable day”. Both are kept in order by their formidable, hard-working wives, Kayla Meikle’s Sue and Bessie Carter’s Lydia respectively. Expect to be engrossed, involved and shaken.
By Judi Herman
Photos by Johan Persson
All My Sons runs until Saturday 8 June. 7.30pm, 2.30pm (Wed & Sat only). £12-£65. The Old Vic, SE1 8NB. 084 4871 7628. www.oldvictheatre.com