All My Sons

“All My Sons.” (1947) Arthur Miller, playwright; Simon McBurney, director. Schoenfeld Theater, Broadway, limited run. Starring John Lithgow, Patrick Wilson, Dianne Wiest, Katie Holmes.

“All My Sons,” Arthur Miller’s powerful play about family ties, corruption, and lies set just after World War II, opens with a massive wind storm that knocks over a large tree while a woman stands watching, transfixed. She makes her way through a screen door that marks the house, and the storm dies down. But the real storm is just beginning.

The rest of the barnlike stage is nearly bare—just a patio table, a chair, a screen door, another large tree, and the entire back wall painted with bricks to indicate a gigantic gray house looming over the scene. The wings of the stage are uncurtained, revealing the offstage cast sitting formally in the dark, hands in their laps, as they wait their turns to enter the scene.  Their silent presence suggests a jury of our peers, witnessing the action and casting judgment not only upon the characters onstage but also, perhaps, upon the audience as well. This is, after all, Arthur Miller. No man stands alone.

We quickly learn that the tree was a memorial, planted when son Larry was reported missing and presumed shot down in the South Pacific more than three years earlier. Brother Chris (Patrick Wilson) and father Joe (John Lithgow) have accepted Larry’s death, and Chris has invited Larry’s former girlfriend Ann (Katie Holmes) to their house for the weekend with the intent of asking her to marry him. But mother Kate (Dianne Wiest) has refused to accept Larry’s death and still expects him to return from the war, even though it has ended long ago. Her fragile mental state makes it difficult for the family to move forward.

In addition to this conflict is the slowly unfolding who-done-it regarding Ann’s father, who had been in business with Joe Keller until he was convicted of selling faulty parts to the Air Force. Ann and her brother have not been back to town since their father’s conviction, and they have refused to speak to him because of the shame he brought to their family.

These two themes–the relationship between fathers and sons and the corrupting nature of capitalism—are recurrent in Miller’s plays and a reason they don’t generally appeal to libertarians. His plays are traditionally directed with a heavy dose of cynicism and bitterness, and business bashing is de rigueur . But recent directors have infused Miller’s characters with a greater complexity, allowing the fathers to reveal an inner struggle and softer emotion that humanizes them, even if it doesn’t quite acquit them.

Lithgow’s Joe Keller is a charming “good old Joe” as he chats with quirky friends from next door, banters with a little neighborhood boy, and warmly welcomes Ann. The neighbors who live on either side of their house are funny and disarming, infusing the first act with an unexpected lightheartedness. Birds chirp in the air and a radio plays happy dance tunes. Ann flits around the stage like a bird herself, first alighting in front of one character and then behind another’s chair, swirling and twittering about the stage. This is a friendly, happy neighborhood, willing and ready to let bygones be bygones. It seems.

But Kate’s neurotic refusal to accept Larry’s death (and thus Chris’s engagement to Ann) casts a deepening pall on the happy scene. Chris is just a little too perfect, Ann just a little too cheerful, Joe just a little too forgiving, Kate just a little too sure that her dead son will return to them alive.  I think it’s significant that the father is named Joe and his son is named Chris, providing a post-modernist, irreverent twist on the iconic Christ figure that subtly adds gravity to a story.

What carries this play (and will carry it all the way to the Tonys in June, despite its limited fall run) is the powerful performance of the actors. Every one of them is spot on, from the bubbly goofiness of the next door neighbors to the powerful intensity of the parents’ pain. Wiest’s unvoiced howl of despair as she curls into herself in the final scene is bloodcurdling in its silence. Wilson brings a natural movement and inflection to his performance, and Lithgow is—well, he’s just magnificent. At times feeble with age, at times powerfully physical, he simply fills the massive stage.

Katie Holmes is good in her Broadway debut. She is lovely, charming, and sprightly in Act I as she flits from character to character, smiling brightly at everyone. I also found McBurney’s frequent staging with Ann’s back to the audience disarming as well—rather like the depth Giotto created in his paintings by having some characters face into the painting rather than out. But Holmes has not yet learned how to reach the rafters without shouting, and it is especially apparent when she is onstage with these veteran actors. Emotions that should be raw and hesitant in the second act become angry and harsh instead. She seems more suited for screen than for stage at this point, but hopefully she will learn to use her diaphragm before she loses her voice.

As for the business bashing–well, it’s Arthur Miller. Of course it’s there. But it seems less universal in this production, which focuses more on the flaw in an individual than on corruption in the system of business itself. Joe blames the system, but he has become an unreliable voice, so we don’t have to take his word for it.

The true evil in this production stems from self-deception, trying to cover up a mistake instead of accepting responsibility and correcting it—a tragic weakness that many of us have experienced from time to time.  It happens to a businessman in this play, but it doesn’t have to happen to every businessman. As a member of my party said while we were leaving the theater, “There are corrupt people in every walk of life—doctors, plumbers, politicians, bankers. But the free market provides the surest way for identifying and eliminating them.”

Don’t let Miller’s left wing reputation keep you from attending this production of “All My Sons.” This is theater at its best, with a thought-provoking script and a top-notch cast.  If you are in New York this fall, it should be at the top of your list.