If the sins of the father are visited upon the sons, then Arthur Miller's classic "All My Sons" is the ethical conundrum for our time. In this precursor to his signature piece, "Death of a Salesman," Miller tackles the father-son conflict revealing what happens when the patriarch of the family is revealed to be just another imperfect man whose tragic errors in judgment bring down all he knows and loves.
Ripped from a small newspaper article in which a woman informed on her own father for selling faulty parts to the U.S. military during World War II, Miller's play tells of a family man and businessman who knowingly sold cracked airplane cylinder heads to the army that inadvertently caused the death of 21 pilots. Joe Keller's business depended on such government contracts and his family depended on him.
Cleared of fault at his trial, while his partner Steve took the whole rap and went to jail, his conscience had no catharsis, and the guilt takes its toll on the otherwise gregarious Joe and his wife, Kate. Ever present in the back of Kate's mind, sometimes conscious, sometimes not, is the nagging suspicion that Joe was complicit in the sale.
Chris, their younger son, helps run the family business now that Larry, his older brother, is gone, still listed as missing-in-action even though three years have passed since the end of the war. Life is good for Chris (Patrick Wilson). He's been dating Larry's fiancï¿½e, Ann, and they plan to marry, even though he knows his mother can never approve as long as she believes that Larry's alive.
The thing is, Steve is Ann's father, and her arrival signals the beginning of the end. The end of innocence, the end of lying, the end of life as the Keller family knows it. In the defining moments, when Joe is cornered and reveals the truth, his cries that he did it for his family ring hollow.
Miller's exquisite play, which puts the spotlight on how the demands of daily life can cause the destruction of moral integrity, is extremely well-cast, though it suffers a bit under Simon McBurney's odd direction. Tony-winner John Lithgow digs deep and brings out all of Joeï¿½s angst as his secrets are stripped away. Facing the demons which leave him morally and spiritually bankrupt, Joe tries desperately to explain the inexplicable.
Totally absorbed in her role as the grieving mother, Dianne Wiest portrays an inconsolable Kate who finally realizes that if she admits her son is dead, then she has to admit that his father must have killed him. It takes your breath away. But it's Katie Holmes whose Broadway debut performance rocks the house. In a powerful scene between the two women, Holmes pulls out all the stops as she confronts the matriarch of this crumbling family.
But the odd direction interferes with the brilliant acting. The problem is that the actors are spaced far apart -- literally. In the most dramatic of scenes in which Chris and Joe finally face off, Lithgow stands at one end of the stage and Chris at the other so that they are shouting, not just because of the intensity of their emotions, but because they wouldn't be able to hear each other otherwise. Both have to travel light years to make this face-to-face confrontation work.
And one wonders why McBurney would have Lithgow play out his final scene upstage, as far away from the audience as possible so that everyone else has to turn towards him with their backs to the audience. The detachment this creates between the characters filters through to the audience. We're watching emotions, but aren't as wrapped up in them as we should be.
Despite these shortcomings, however, "All My Sons" has as much punch in 2008 as it did in 1948. Problems over government contracts and who makes money exploiting others in times of war couldn't be more current. The war to end all wars didn't and sons are still battling the sins of their fathers.
What the press had to say.....
"McBurney (director)... underline's' not only whatï¿½s obvious but also whatï¿½s awkward in a work that relies heavily on mechanical plotting and bald speechifying. And to transform its characters into archetypal puppets of destiny is to deprive actors of the chance to create richly human portraits." & "Left me stone cold, despite some electric moments from a very fine Mr. Lithgow and Mr. Wilson."
New York Times
"While always arresting, the underscoring and other theatrical fireworks yield diminishing returns. The final 20 minutes of "All My Sons" are as powerful and plain-spoken as dramas get, and adornment seems superfluous. It's a testament to Miller that his play's themes of war and responsibility still resonate today."
New York Daily News
"Simon McBurney's staging is unexpectedly effective in its post-modern way - with projections and a cast that moves its own chairs on- and offstage - but too much of the acting is two-dimensional, at best. "
New York Post
"Director Simon McBurney blows away the naturalistic dust from "All My Sons" and reveals Arthur Miller's drama to be as inexorable and timeless as Greek tragedy. A boldly stylized production all charged up with electrifying performances by John Lithgow as a corrupt businessman and Dianne Wiest as his sorrowful wife"
"Four estimable actors headline the Broadway revival of Arthur Miller's "All My Sons"... They all do well. If only that were enough." & "What Miller has written is meant to be a naturalistic work; the last thing it needs is for Simon McBurney, the director and head of the all-too-precious Complicite company, to bedizen it with expressionist devices. "
"Director Simon McBurney throws the kitchen-sink realism out of the window with a startlingly abstract production" & "McBurney pushes it too far. Too many thoughts and references are given literal stage life." & "John Lithgow as Joe manages to resist this temptation. ('He') balances Joe's anger and pettiness with an ocean-deep sorrow, creating a small town King Lear." & " Katie Holmes as Annie is definitely out of her league.... Holmes lack of stage experience is evident."
"One of the toughest challenges for a director is making a familiar play fresh... In the breathtaking, fiercely acted revival ...British director Simon McBurney has done both. The result is one of the boldest, most exciting Broadway productions in years." & "Holmes clings to intensity the way a child clutches a security blanket ï¿½ but, considering this is her stage debut, and the ridiculous excess of attention sheï¿½s received, her performance is quite respectable, and even a little brave."
"Miller's play may not be totally naturalistic but there is an underlying humanity to both stories that must come out. In McBurney's severely impressionistic production, that humanity is difficult to find. The characters, not to mention the actors, are smothered by all those special effects." & "Miller's play, despite its potent message, is weighed down with enough symbols, not to mention its own awkward melodramatics. McBurney and company have, unfortunately, added even more of their own."
"Pairing Arthur Miller's probing social realism with Brit director Simon McBurney's multidisciplinary experimental approach was a gamble, but the payoff in "All My Sons" is considerable. The...production balances theatrical artifice with heightened emotion, seeding anxiety deep in the collective pit of the audience's stomach and then amplifying it steadily until the shattering final scene. Liberally mixing Brechtian presentation with cinematic flourishes, this is a commanding illustration of the power of theater and a searing drama of morality and conscience that has as much to say to America now as it did in 1947."