All My Sons is a play that didn’t hit my radar until after it opened. I’ve seen
Henry Miller Arthur Miller but not considered him great; the cast (as ever) meant nothing to me; and, in keeping with my New Year’s resolution of seeing “less plays, but enjoying them more,” I didn’t bother booking tickets on spec just to get in an early review. But then the reviews started coming in, and with the quick glance at the West End Whingers’ surprisingly generous allocation of wine glasses on top of ShentonStage’s enthusiastic (possibly “raving”) opening night tweets, suddenly All My Sons was on the map and rocketing into must-see levels. A couple of quick glances at various papers showed similar levels of enthusiasm, and then it was off on the hunt for tickets, and quickly, before they became impossible to get at anything approaching affordable prices. TKTS was showing availability on early-weekday nights at half price, but LastMinute wasn’t really coming through: all signs pointed to “hit!” But then I had a bit of good luck; a friend of mine who’s hearing impaired wanted to go, and thanks to her I actually got to sit in the stalls for half price (nicely situated for her to lip read) – row F on a Tuesday night.
My efforts were well rewarded and I think my summary judgment on this show is that, for once, the West End’s got something that is worth paying full price. The cast is good, and effortlessly American; and the script is powerful, succeeding both in creating characters that are realistic and intriguing, and a plot that rockets along like Ibsen’s best, leaving you wide-eyed and excited at intermission because you want to know what’s going to happen next. I had no idea, as I’d carefully avoided reading too much plot: a nice and spoiler-free summary is “the card-house of lies Joe Keller (David Suchet) had built comes crashing down on his head, and he knows he cannot escape.” (I think I saw this in the Metro’s review, so no credit for originality.) Miller deftly captures the venality at the heart of American culture; while England may be a nation of shopkeepers, America is more of a nation of salesman and manufacturers, always looking for the better deal, and valuing the “almighty dollar” above anything else. This is how we get disasters like the BP oil slick visited on us; greed and industry-favoring deals are in the nation’s blood. At the same time, Miller shows a country where people do, well and truly, love each other, and not just because of family ties; and a population of people who can have very high standards … but too often find them, eventually, compromised. This gives the story, set clearly a few years after World War II (yet vaguely in “an American town” – I imagine Michigan or Illinois), a lovely timelessness that make the historical references mere markers to give us context*.
Playing characters this complex is tricky, I think, but the cast uniformly managed to not seem cartoonish in some difficult roles. Kate Keller (Zoe Wannamaker, with her strange New Jersey-ish accent) makes her belief in the existence of her missing son – with its attendant rquest for astrological charts and strange obsessions with a fallen tree – ultimately true to the core, alongside her dedication to her husband Joe in full sight of his failings; Jemima Rooper, as the missing son’s fiancée Anne Deever, initially comes off as too hard to be of the era (and so young), but as her character unfolds, her resolve becomes more reasonable and her underlying conflicts flesh out her actions and make her ability to make any connections more reasonable – still, she seemed a bit stiff.
Potentially clunkiest of them all is Joe and Kate’s son Chris. This character seems to lend itself to being a buffoonish role – either too prude, or too idealistic to be believed, or just generally so inflexible that he can’t possibly come off as a real person. But Stephen Campbell Moore must have poked around deeply to find all of the threads that could take a man who loves his family – and his father – so much, stuffed him full of the milk of human kindness, then sent him off to war to watch his men all die while he tried to hold onto whatever it was that made him himself and gave him a reason to keep on living. I really thought I was never going to warm to Chris, but after he passed through some smallish marriage and love type crisis and moved on to his relationship with his family, he came to life at last and started just to be Chris, Chris who doesn’t believe all people to be good but who truly wants them to be.
Of course the whole play rotates around dad, Joe Keller, the man whose love of his family supposedly motivates him above all else; he’s a fun businessman who takes pride in the business he’s built and seems to hold no grudges. But David Suchet lets us know in bits and pieces that there’s some pretty deep conflicts swimming below Joe’s genial, Midwestern surface; and all along the ride Suchet holds onto our reins tightly, making us feel like we are in the drivers seat until suddenly it becomes clear that he’s gone some place we never expected and we are not going to be able to turn back from this, any more than Joe can. We have reached our final destination and it is too late for us to say we meant to go somewhere else; the cart comes undone as if its nails were all simultaneously pulled and we’re left with a spinning wagon wheel and the strange feeling that it all was supposed to turn out differently, somehow. Suchet handles the role effortlessly, as if he’d spent years working a factory and playing poker with his neighbors, and every drop of his character rang true for me.
I could say a few words about the set (nice foliage; bad lighting fixtures on the house and period inappropriate lawn furniture) or the costumes (Kate’s red dress deliciously appropriate; most of the cast could entirely use a retuning to a proper 1948 look), but they’re all just side notes to a brilliant production that left me feeling exhilarated as I walked out into the night. I know this isn’t exactly the “feel good hit of the summer,” but it’s a great show and it’s left me with a hankering for a trip to see “The Crucible” as it’s also on. As for you (dear reader), I highly advise you to book tickets for this admirable play.
*Note: the only thing I found utterly mysterious in this show was the reference to “kissing at Labor Day.” For you Englishers, Labor Day is our end of summer Bank Holiday but why the kissing? Per the quite comprehensive Gurthrie Study Guide, back in the 40s there used to be carnivals over this holiday, which featured kissing booths. Who knew?
(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, June 15th, 2010. All My Sons continues through October 2nd, 2010. For more reviews, please see UpTheWestEnd.com, where they are nicely compiled in a big list.)