Monday, June 13, 2016

All My Sons by Arthur Miller

Robyn Nevin and John Howard
as Kate and Joe Keller
in All My Sons

All My Sons by Arthur Miller.  Sydney Theatre Company at Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney, June 10 – July 9, 2016.

Director:  Kip Williams; Assistant Director – Elsie Edgerton-Till

Designers:  Set – Alice Babidge; Lighting – Nick Schlieper; Composer and Sound – Max Lyandvert; Voice and Text Coach – Charmian Gradwell.

Cast:  Toby Challenor or Jack Ruwald (Bert); Anita Hegh (Sue Bayliss); John Howard (Joe Keller); Bert Labonte (Dr Jim Bayliss); John Leary (Frank Lubey); Josh McConville (George Deever); Robyn Nevin (Kate Keller); Eryn Jean Norvill (Ann Deever); Chris Ryan (Chris Keller); Contessa Treffone (Lydia Lubey).

Reviewed by Frank McKone
June 11

Despite the brilliance of the acting – as we naturally expect nowadays from such a cast in this company – I found it oddly disappointing that my own amateur production of All My Sons (Broken Hill Rep 1965) had a better ending.  Kip Williams has so focussed the spotlight on the political message, about the literally destructive nature of capitalist enterprise, that I felt he has set aside the warmth and empathy towards the characters that was equally Arthur Miller’s concern.

Interestingly, even oddly again, the Program includes a lengthy quote from Miller’s ‘Tragedy and the Common Man’ which concludes: It is time, I think, that we who are without kings, took up this bright thread of our history and followed it to the only place it can lead in our time – the heart and spirit of the average man.

This is why my set began as a sunny light-hearted garden with an attractive fence for the neighbours to poke their heads over and come bursting through the gate for chatter and a welcoming social life – even if they knew the Kellers and Deevers had their problems.  The back door and wall of the Keller’s house had to be pleasant brick and timber, with windows conventionally curtained.  Though only a single tree was seen on stage, the scattered leaves around the garden table and seat added life to the scene.  This was the house and garden made by Kate Keller, proud mother of two loving sons.

After the storm, with the tree now broken, and into the night, the colouring changed from its bright daytime yellow, through threatening red and into steel blue.  As the mood changed, the attractiveness of the scene – though dulled, except for the one light in the upstairs bedroom window – was still there to remind us of the ‘heart and spirit’ of ordinary suburban life.

It’s into this scene, after interval, that George Deever comes to expose Joe Keller’s perfidy and to create the inevitable emotional chaos about his sister Ann’s intended marriage to Chris Keller, the younger brother of her now-dead boyfriend, Larry.  Ann has kept secret the truth only she knows about why and how he died, but now must reveal this to Kate, so her mother-in-law will understand and come to accept Ann’s decision.

Joe Keller does not commit suicide simply because of the legal issue of his allowing faulty plane engines to be shipped in the madness of wartime pressure for delivery.  Nor even because he knew, or thought he knew, that Larry had crashed flying one of those planes.  It was because he was lost in the maelstrom that George Deever generates – a violent whirlpool taking him down, where he saw ‘all my sons’ – with no hope of a way out.  When he goes back into the house, leaving Ann, Chris and his wife in deep darkness in the garden, they know what he will do.  There is only one lighted window, curtained neatly.  Joe is a ‘common man’ who has lost his ‘heart and spirit’.

They wait.  Chris turns to Ann and quietly says to go and fetch Dr Bayliss,  and she leaves through the garden gate.  Chris and his mother are seated, and wait.  As we do in the audience.  At last, in the absolute silence, the bedroom light switches off.  Pause.  The shot rings out. 

In my production the whole theatre remained silent for at least a further minute, as the already dim light gradually faded to absolute black.  Applause began gently, quietly, even respectfully, only as the general stage light began to come up for Kate and Chris to rise and move downstage.  Ann and George Deever, Dr Jim and Sue Bayliss, and the Lubeys with Bert, entered from the garden gate to join the remaining Keller mother and son.

The applause rose to its peak for the entrance of Joe Keller from the wings, and the ‘curtain call’ was complete.

But this was not how it happened in Kim Williams’ production.  Alice Babidge’s set was an almost bare stage, with a small round garden table and chair, and the tree, surrounded entirely in black, flat walls taken to full height.  Entrances stage left and right were through invisible black doors.  Upstage, the door into the house was black, and there were several windows – flat unadorned rectangular holes through which action in the house could be seen, such as answering the telephone. 

This was never the mother Kate Keller’s house and garden.  Never the place of suburban socialising, bringing up children who became boyfriends and girlfriends, and trying to cope with her husband, trapped by his own ‘common-ness’.

Already black, the scene certainly got darker as the night went on.  I had used faint moonlight for Ann, Kate and Chris in the final scene: there was no moon, no stars of even faint hope here.  Then, after Joe entered the house, the rear wall impossibly rose up to reveal the internal corridor, the stairs and the upstairs room where we now saw Joe slumped with a pistol still in his hand.

We had heard the shot, of course, but then Chris went into the house, climbed up the stairs, inspected the body, came back out and told Ann to fetch Dr Bayliss.  Chris and his mother then reacted to what had happened by striking poses of utter desolation, Chris downstage left and Kate at the doorway into the house.

Blackout was quick.  The audience immediately applauded loudly and enthusiastically and all the cast came on rapidly for two curtain calls.

But within seconds of the play’s ending, whatever we have learned about nasty capitalism, we have not felt the warmth, the fear, the confusion, the humanity of these ordinary people – people like us who can easily make the same kinds of deliberate and ignorant misjudgements.  As indeed we do, when we send our young people off to war and teach them to have simplistic ambitions for ‘success’.

I suppose modern audiences expect precise professionalism – brilliance – and Kip Williams and his cast have provided that.  But I think a bit of old-fashioned fuzziness suits this play better.  I think this All My Sons sells Arthur Miller short.

All photos by Zan Wimberley

Chris Ryan, Eryn Jean Norvill, Anita Hegh as
Chris Keller, Ann Deever and Sue Bayliss
showing the set design for All My Sons

John Howard as Joe Keller with Jack Ruwald as neighbour Bert

Chris Ryan and Robyn Nevin as
Chris Keller confronting his mother Kate Keller
over the death of his brother Larry
symbolised by the broken apple tree

Eryn Jean Norvill, John Howard, Robyn Nevin, Chris Ryan
as Ann Deever. watches the Keller family in conflict

Joe Keller (above) observes conversation between Chris Keller, Dr Jim Bayliss and Ann Deever
John Howard, Chris Ryan, Bert LaBonte and Eryn Jean Norvill

Joe Keller breaks an apple from the tree felled by the storm, giving half each to Chris and Ann
Chris Ryan, John Howard and Erin Jean Norvill

George Deever refuses to accept his sister Ann's intended marriage to Chris Keller, who looks to his mother, Kate for support.
L:R  Robyn Nevin as Kate Keller, Chris Ryan as Chris Keller,
Eryn Jean Norvill as Ann Deever, Josh McConville as George Deever

Joe Keller with his only remaining son, Chris
John Howard, Chris Ryan

Kate Keller tries to comfort her husband, Joe
Robyn Nevin, John Howard
in All My Sons