Wonderful performances, a great story and I’m glad to have discovered this play. It is also, I think, apt that this review appears on 11th November given All My Sons is set in 1947. The impact of World War Two is still red raw on grieving families (as the play makes very clear). It is one of those plays that once seen you won’t forget it. The emotional impact is powerful and I went home in a thoughtful mood pondering what I’d just seen.
Prior to the play all I knew about Arthur Miller was he wrote Death of a Salesman and he had been married to Marilyn Monroe. After the play, I discovered he could convey life in small town America just after WW2 in a way that took my breath away.
Image Credit: All photos for this post were kindly supplied by The Chameleon Theatre Company and were taken by Stuart Wineberg. Many thanks.
Impact of Play
Watching this play felt as if you were witnessing a real event. For me, that is phenomenally powerful writing. But of course the performances had to get that across without tipping over into melodrama and this The Chameleons did brilliantly.
The increasing tensions between the characters as the play went on was conveyed beautifully. You just knew something would have to give by the end of it and the denouement was… well… startling.
The trouble with reviews is working out how much to say about the plot without giving it away. Likewise, it can be problematic sharing links to give more information to stop posts like this from becoming far too long yet giving sources of further details for those interested enough to want to read more. So beware of following the links I include here if you don’t want to know more about the characters!
Theme and Performances
I will say the overall theme of All My Sons is betrayal. It was unnerving to see a portrayal where a character has done something truly awful but has managed to convince themselves they had not and worse managed to pin the blame on someone else, knowing all along someone would have to be the fall guy. And what mattered to that character is that fall guy was not to be them.
Nick Coleman’s performance as Joe Keller was outstanding. The play keeps you guessing to the very last moment as to whether Joe, the character accused of allowing dodgy parts to be sold to the armed forces during WW2 and which directly brought down 20 planes with the loss of the pilots, is guilty or not. And yet Joe is such a likeable character…
Then there’s Joe’s wife, Kate, played by Liz Strevens. Her portrayal of a woman on the brink of madness when she is the only one who cannot accept their eldest boy, Larry, was killed during the war was brilliantly done. You could see right into that character’s head and why they were in denial. And then at the end when the whole sorry mess of a story comes out, you see there was a reason for her denial. It wasn’t self delusion. It was self protection (for Joe as well as for herself). And Larry’s death was not all it was made out to be either.
Response of Critics to All My Sons
Miller began writing All My Sons in 1941 and the play gained him his first Tony Award, thanks to its success on Broadway. When it first came out, most critics felt it was “a very depressing play in a time of great optimism” (quote from Miller’s interview in 1994 with Ron Rifkin). Miller himself felt only positive reviews from Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times saved it from failure.
To my mind, the critics missed the point. All My Sons is an intense character study on the ability of humans to deceive themselves and others. When such deception is carried out really well, it can be buried beneath a friendly, down to earth, all round regular guy persona which is what Nick portrayed so wonderfully. The fact someone could carry out the initial wrong doing and cover it up, allowing someone else to take the blame and be imprisoned for it, should be depressing!
The greed of Joe, the willingness to put his own and his family’s wellbeing above anything else is pretty damning. What the critics should have recognised, I think, is how realistic this kind of behaviour is and that Miller was holding a metaphorical mirror up to show “hey, this is what humans can be like”.
The really sad thing about All My Sons is that it is based on a true story. The Wikipedia link gives a great description of the characters and their role in the play so I won’t repeat that here. I am saddened but not totally surprised that a true story inspired this play. The play has such a realism to it I should perhaps have guessed at that.
I felt desperately sorry for the character of Chris (played by Matt Costen) whose almost idol worship of his father is brought crashing down through no fault of Chris’s own. Likewise for George (played by Matthew Meehan), who discovers the truth of what happens and comes to challenge Joe over his behaviour and to stop his sister, Annie (played by Lisa Dunbar), from marrying Chris (not wanting her to have “blood on her hands”).
Miller and McCarthyism
Arthur Miller was brought up for questioning during the McCarthy era precisely because All My Sons is so critical of the American Dream. (I think I can guess what he would have made of the current US Presidential election!).
While I was not around during this era, I experienced enough of the Cold War period as I grew up in the 1970s to know that paranoia about the Communist threat was a reality. The list of people blacklisted thanks to McCarthy, as shown on the link, is frightening.
I think the one thing it shows is the necessity of people to ask awkward questions and this is one area where writers can excel. We can put into fiction the awkward questions and show our answers. All My Sons I think shows Miller’s attitude to corruption and human greed.
I can also see why the play would not have been popular in all quarters when it came out. I suspect there was a sense of wanting to forget the war and move on and dwelling on a truly horrible story, which does not show anyone in a good light, well it would hardly help the feel good factor.
Ending the Play
The play ends at exactly the right moment which I won’t reveal on the grounds it would be a huge spoiler. I must admit I would have loved to have seen what happened afterwards though. A really good story makes you want to know more about the characters after the tale finishes and All My Sons did this for me.
Did the ending finally convince George that what happened was not Chris’s fault and that there was no reason to stop him marrying Annie? Could something be salvaged from the wreckage here by Chris and Annie marrying? Did the Keller family stay where they were, truth revealed, phenomenally embarrassing to them to say the least or did they move on, keen to get to somewhere nobody would know who they were? Could Chris bring himself to marry Annie now knowing the truth? So many questions and no answers to them!
One of the trickiest things in writing is knowing when to stop at times. Miller got this one right and a good story should leave questions for the reader/watcher/listener to ponder about.
All My Sons: excellent production by the Chameleons
In this production by the Chameleon Theatre Company, directed by Geoff Dodsworth, every single character was portrayed excellently. The simple set design was enough to convince you that you were looking into what was going on in a typical American backyard.
I continue to be amazed at how much can be achieved on such a small stage as that at The Ritchie Memorial Hall. I’ll watch for future Chameleon productions with great interest.
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.
Never miss out on another blog post. Subscribe here:
Subscribe to Blog via Email