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Poignant Powerful Theatre: All My Sons, Rose Theatre, Kingston.

by on 28 October 2016

All My Sons

by Arthur Miller

RTK at The Rose Theatre, Kingston until 19th November

Review by Mark Aspen

Perhaps amongst the strongest and most deep-rooted emotions are love and guilt. When they are pitched against each other, which will win?  This is the question posed in All My Sons, the first successful Broadway play of Arthur Miller, probably the most accomplished of American playwrights.

At tonight’s Kingston opening of Miller’s masterpiece directed by Michael Rudman, the Rose Theatre company wove the play’s multi-stranded plots into a picture of a family torn by conflicting emotions.

Senator Harry Truman, who was to become US President as the Second World War drew to a close, chaired a committee during the 1940’s that investigated malpractice in US defence spending. The Truman Committee found the US economy was riddled “with war profiteering on a rampant scale”.  This forms an opening premise to Miller’s play.

It is set in the mid-West one fine August day in 1946 in the garden of the home of Joe Keller, a successful businessman, an apparently honest and genial man in his sixties. But to paraphrase Truman’s well-known remark, “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit”, Keller knows that it is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the blame. For the truth that gradually surfaces during the play is that he knowingly supplied defective cylinder heads to engines fitted in P 40 Warhawk military planes. When 21 planes crash with the loss of their crews, Keller lets his business partner, Steve Deever, take the rap.

As the play opens, Deever still languishes in gaol, shunned by all, including his own family.

Keller’s wife Kate cannot accept the death of her eldest son, Larry in another, seemingly unrelated, loss of a military plane. But on this day, Annie, the erstwhile fiancée of Larry is coming at the invitation of the younger son, Chris.  Chris plans to propose marriage to her.  However, Annie is Steve Deever’s daughter.  Thus we have the fuel to the explosive atmosphere that permeates the play.

David Horovitch and Penny Downie as Joe and Kate Keller give towering performances of the two parents, both wrestling with internal conflict as they suppress unthinkable emotions: Kate that her beloved son might not be alive; Joe the guilt that he had not only betrayed his friend and partner, but was responsible for the deaths of so many brave men.

The action takes place on the verandah of the Keller home, in Michael Taylor’s set a grand weather-boarded house in the colonial style. Resplendently reaching up to the full height of the theatre, it was symbolic of the home that drew everyone together … and kept them in their own emotional rooms.  The detail was painstaking, from roof fascia to wood-shed, to the thick verdant lawn.  Under David Howe’s lighting one could feel the sultry heat of the continental summer.  The symbolism extended to the young sycamore tree that had succumbed to the stormy wind of the previous night, not uprooted but snapped at its base.  This was the tree that had been planted in memory of Larry, and thus fuelled the hopes of the superstitious Kate that his death had not happened and sought her to ask neighbour Frank Lubey (crisply played by William Meredith) to cast Larry’s horoscope to bolster her hope against hopes.

The scene is set for the symbolism of the house as Joe pretends to the local children that there is a gaol in basement of the house.   One such child is Bert, a neighbour’s boy, who was played with openness and great confidence by ten-years old Sam Stewart, who fervently believes that here is a gaol there.  As the play unfolds, we realise that this is simply the spiritual gaol for Joe’s guilt, where it is kept firmly locked away, unfed by his conscience.

Alex Waldmann’s energetic portrait of the younger son, Chris Keller, was a study in fidelity broken by events, as he finds that his nagging doubts were true. He is beautifully paired with Francesca Zoutewelle as Annie Deever, a fresh and sparkling picture of hope for the future.  Annie has overcome her grief for Larry (in spite of Kate’s protestations to the contrary) and is able give expression to her deeply held feelings for Chris, his brother.

An evening out at a restaurant is planned, where Chris and Annie intend to announce their engagement. But then comes the news that Annie’s brother, George, is flying in from Cleveland to take Annie back home, for George has at last brought himself to visit their father in gaol, and now knows the truth.

The friction starts with the agitated entrance of Susie Bayliss, the wife of the doctor who lives next door. Alison Pargeter, in this role, was wonderfully accurate to the sentiments and style of the period.  The grit falls into the engine oil, however, when George Deever arrives.  Wild and agitated, Edward Harrison’s portrait of George, with haunted eyes and palpably repressed anger, said it all.   But even George has his emotions torn, and Harrison showed us a man perplexed by the force of his own feelings.

At the climax of the play, when Chris turns on his own father, and Annie reveals what is effectively a suicide note from Larry, telling how he is about to crash his own plane to exonerate himself of his father’s actions, we have almost a Greek tragedy, sensitively acted by all the cast. Kate’s final acceptance of Larry’s death is depicted by Downie with searing poignancy.

For Joe, equally devastating is the culminated effect of the rejection by his son Chris, the realisation that his son Larry took Joe’s guilt on himself, and Joe’s final acceptance of his culpability in the death of the twenty-one air crews, who were “all my sons”. He returns to the house and shoots himself.   Horovitch’s expositon of this moment was a piece of terrifically powerful theatre.

There was just one niggling drawback. From the side of the apron stage, it was sometimes difficult to accurately hear all of the actors.  Maybe on opening night they had not settled to the idiosyncrasies of the Rose Theatre acoustics, or could it be that many actors today have become so used to television acting that they forget the big requirements of the stage?

Nevertheless, the pain of the huge emotional journeys that are taken by all the characters in the course of the play was acted with such aching precision that this is a play not to be missed.

Faith, hope and love … the greatest of the three is love.   But, for the Keller family, guilt wins even over love.

 Mark Aspen

October 2016

One Comment
  1. celiabard permalink

    Excellent review. Your post made me want to go and see it – hope I’m not too late for tickets.

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