Thursday, January 14, 2010

All our sons

The Furies reach the Great Plains in All My Sons. Photos by T. Charles Erickson.

I realized about half an hour into the show that I was going to need all my superlatives for All My Sons, the new production of Arthur Miller's 1947 classic that singlehandedly re-instates the Huntington as a great regional theatre. The Huntington is back, and it rules.

But no, it's not a perfect production - in fact it's far from perfect; it doesn't nearly achieve the graceful complexity that Nicky Martin used to conjure on this stage. But it has something else that Martin rarely managed; it's the most rawly powerful piece of theatre I've seen not only this year (which is just a few weeks old), but perhaps in many years. This is one play that deserves the accolade of "searing drama," and the acting at the Huntington often blazes - and in the case of Karen MacDonald, should become the stuff of legend. I admit the production concept (see above) is, well, debatable in my mind, although it's certainly valid in many of its contentions. But the direction, by David Esbjornson, nevertheless brings both Miller's tragic depth and rhetorical power to life with at times almost overwhelming force.

Miller's tale of war profiteering and fate is, of course, a familiar one - even its resonance with the corruption of the Bush administration became a commonplace after the recent Broadway revival. Likewise the play's nearly-exact transcription of the tropes of classic tragedy into a modern American milieu is old hat. We're supposed to see through Arthur Miller now, because, our professors tell us, his conventions are melodramatic (and those of the Greeks weren't?) and his politics (particularly his sexual politics) naïve - while race, our current obsession, hardly figures in his best work.

Well - and I mean this in the nicest way possible - to hell with the professors. Because in the end, the academy hates Arthur Miller because he ennobled the white bourgeoisie, which in the la-la-land of the modern university, can never, ever be noble. Yet every time I've seen All My Sons, I've seen those evil bourgeois types fighting back tears, and last night at the Huntington proved no exception - when it wasn't all but weeping, the crowd was utterly transfixed. In a word, the play channels something like the classic idea of catharsis more devastatingly than any other mainstream play of the modern era, and the Huntington succeeds in capturing its harrowing passion.

It does so, I must admit, by relying on two central performances. Karen MacDonald (at left) is almost frightening at times as Kate Keller, the wife who understands (but denies) that her husband's playing fast and loose with the quality of the aircraft parts he sold to the war effort has brought the death of their own son down on their heads. MacDonald seems to capture every facet of this neurotic, manipulative, complicated, tragic figure - one of Miller's greatest creations, frankly - and at a few moments (such as her collapse when confronted with a letter from her dead son) she gets at something so primal you can feel the hairs rise on the back of your neck. Watching her here, it occurred to me that the dissolution of the acting company at the A.R.T. may in artistic terms be the best thing that ever happened to MacDonald. Her light was always under a basket there; here, she gives one of those performances that makes you feel you've been privileged to witness it.

MacDonald is matched in intensity (if not in variety) by hunky Lee Aaron Rosen as surviving son Chris, who has likewise buried all doubt about Dad and compensated with a consuming sense of idealism. Rosen's internal work has perhaps not quite reached the complexity it might (there's more self-deception at play behind Chris's heroism than we feel here), but his emotional attack is all but ferocious; at another hair-raising moment, we truly believe that the murder of his father is very much in the air, just as we should. And as his girl Ann (who was also once his dead brother's girl), Diane Davis brought both a hopeful toughness and hints of inner devastation to a part that can easily devolve into a dramatic contrivance.

Not all aspects of the production, however, were quite at this high level. Scott Bradley's scenic design (above) set this American tragedy not in the expected leafy suburb but instead in the barren landscapes of Edward Hopper. A stark farmhouse stood at one side of the stage, surrounded by a dry stretch of dead lawn, over which a very-empty sky loomed, from which threatening clouds and even visions of crashing bombers sometimes loured. This vision struck me as valid, I admit - still, I think I prefer to see Miller's Furies rise not from some modernist vision of American alienation but instead from this country's prosperously pastoral self-image. (And I probably could have done without the expressionist interpolations of Maya Ciarrocchi's projections.)

Some of the acting, I admit, also struck me as problematic. The play's flawed patriarch, Joe Keller, is actually not as fascinating a character as his wife, but he's nevertheless a larger-than-life figure of considerable cultural power, and it's essential that he have a warm sense of humanity, and a strong streak of typically-American up-from-his-own-bootstraps bonhomie; the arc of Miller's tale, which is basically the revelation of what lies beneath that happy American mask, depends on this. But the essentially-elegant Mr. Lyman (below, with Rosen) is nobody's idea of an Everyman, and he seems to have taken the ethos of the set a bit too much to heart; he's craftily, almost wittily alienated from his first lines, and when his wife tells us that he's "not smart," we don't believe her for a second. There were other glitches on opening night - a faltering cue here or there, and a few patches of blurry delivery; I know the characterization will come together, and already it holds the stage, but I wonder whether it will ever stand up to the towering performances surrounding it.

There were a few other odd notes struck here and there - as Ann's brother George, Michael Tisdale proved almost too eccentric in his defeated confusion. And while there was solid, believably detailed work from Dee Nelson, Ken Cheeseman, Owen Doyle, and Stephanie DiMaggio as the Kellers' neighbors and friends, their scenes hadn't always found a natural rhythm (perhaps this slightly awkward edge was intentional on the part of the director).

These gaps seemed like trifles, however, when MacDonald was haunting the stage, or once it began to dawn on Rosen what his own ideals were going to require of him. Why, precisely, seeing other human beings go through this kind of crucible should afford such a deep and resonant experience remains one of the mysterious truths of the theatre. And yet it is a truth. And do I really need to say that with a few small changes (just add "Cheney," "body armor" and "Blackwater" to the dialogue), the play's passionate call-to-arms, once pooh-poohed as preachy by Miller's detractors, is more timely than ever? Joe Keller famously realizes (too late) that the pilots killed by his defective parts were "all my sons." But aren't the soldiers currently facing death in Afghanistan also all our sons? Aren't those all our daughters in Iraq? Will America ever, ever listen to one of its greatest playwrights? Or must our ongoing American tragedy last forever?


  1. Did you see the Simon McBurney production on Broadway? From the photos + your description, this version sounds... how should I put it... familiar? I think that's the nice way to articulate what I'm trying to say.

  2. The opening (to my mind misguided) sequence is, I understand, borrowed from the Broadway revival. The rest is more naturalistic.

  3. So the bad ideas came from New York. As usual.