Arthur Miller had a lot riding on the success of All My Sons. His first play had bombed so his career was very much on the line with its follow-up, a story of greed, profiteering and the dark side of the American Dream. Thank god he decided to persevere as a writer for it won him a Tony Award for Best Author.
You can’t help but watch All My Sons and be enthralled by its multi-layered themes and ideals. It’s a play that fosters debate, questions morality, and asks its audience the hard questions. Just how far would you go for the sake of your family?
Michael Rudman’s visually impressive production (well done designer Michael Taylor), which has just opened at the Rose Theatre, Kingston doesn’t flinch from the moral dilemma facing the Keller family. More than that we see the full impact on friends and neighbours of a decision which sent 21 pilots to their deaths.
There are moments when the story seems to stall and lack energy but your attention is held by powerful performances by the production’s key figures.
David Horovitch is always a good, reliable character actor. He has honourable and upstanding writ large on his professional credentials. If you were to trust anyone with your savings it would be he. He exudes honesty and trustfulness.
And here he delivers the goods, presenting us with a benign, affable, cheery Joe Keller who is a loving husband, a devoted father and a town worthy, running a successful local factory that now turns out white goods for the flourishing post-war boom.
Joe is a hard-working and committed family man who has spent the last five years supporting his distraught wife, Kate, who finds it impossible to come to terms with the wartime disappearance of one of her sons, pilot Larry.
With no body ever found she is convinced that he is still alive and will one day return home. Kate has put her entire life on hold until that moment comes. It’s heart-wrenching to see her obvious distress.
Kate’s reluctance to move on with her life has a profound affect on all the family. Remaining son, Chris, wants to marry Larry’s girlfriend and former next-door-neighbour Ann Deever, but the decision would devastate his mother.
So how can we bear any malice towards the Kellers? They’re everything families should aspire to be – aren’t they?
Well, no. Like all families, they have their secrets and theirs are humdingers. Joe’s factory turned out machine parts for the war effort until he and his business partner, Steve Deever – Ann’s father – were accused of knowingly supplying defective cylinder heads that went into planes and caused them to crash.
Steve felt the full power of the law and the public’s disgust, and was jailed. His family were forced to move away because of neighbourhood resentment and an appalled Ann (Francesca Zoutewelle) turned her back on her father.
But Joe, who always denied knowledge of the matter, and was exonerated of any blame.
Now the war’s over his friends and neighbours accept his hospitality but privately still believe he was just as culpable. Everyone deludes themselves. No-one is willing to face the truth about anything.
Ann’s decision to revisit the street, and accept Chris’s proposal, acts as a catalyst that results in home truths being revealed.
Horovitch gives a richly subtle performance as Joe. He’s such a contradiction. Even when circumstances force secrets and lies to the surface you still have sympathy for him. Everything he did, he did for the good of his family. Who wouldn’t?
But Rudman leaves it up to the audience to apportion blame and refuses to make Joe an evil profiteering capitalist whose actions were entirely mercenary.
“It’s good money, there’s nothing wrong with the money,” says Joe to Chris, who is reluctant to continue in the family business.
Chris loves his dad. He would never do anything morally wrong would he? For money?
“Dad…you did it? You sent out 120 cracked engine-heads and let those boys die! How could you do that? How? Dad…Dad, you killed 21 men! You killed them, you murdered them”.
Alex Waldmann struggles, through no fault of his own, to fully flesh out the complex, immature Chris. There’s nothing shallow or one-dimensional about the man and, at times, it’s impossible to bring all his insecurities to the stage.
Chris is frustrated and intimidated at living in his brother’s shadow, anxious not to alienate his mother, unsure about wooing Larry’s girlfriend, and suffering personally at being the only one of his squadron to return home.
Add to that his guilt at being faced with his father’s apparent sins and you can imagine how difficult the actor’s job can be. Alex is fine with the sober, altruistic Chris but less certain when the man implodes with familial guilt.
Without doubt Penny Downie’s moving portrayal of Kate Keller should earn our sympathy. Yet, I have a sneaking suspicion that she knew all along that her husband may not be entirely innocent, in which case she must share some of the blame.
War often makes good people behave badly. It can also be seen as a fortuitous opportunity. Thankfully Miller’s steely resolve to punish the guilty makes All My Sons one of literature’s, and theatre’s, great morality tales.
All My Sons runs at the Rose Theatre Kingston, until November 19.
All My Sons
Michael Rudman’s visually stunning production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons is lifted with powerful performances from David Horovitch & Penny Downie.