John Howard and Robyn Nevin play husband and wife for Arthur Miller’s star-spangled classic
Arthur Miller’s 1947 play is not just an American but an international classic, and with good reason. It was last seen in Sydney in 2013, opening the Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s first season at the Eternity Playhouse. Less than three years later, this new production by Sydney Theatre Company resident director Kip Williams makes an excellent case for the play’s ongoing relevance to our stages, but also its social necessity.
Joe Keller (John Howard, a genial man unravelling) lives with his wife Kate (Robyn Nevin, a towering performance of intelligent grief) and son Chris (Chris Ryan, the play’s true heart) in a quietly charming, all-American way: he chats pleasantly with his neighbours, owns his own business, is happy to while away his free hours in the family yard. He lost a son, Larry, in the war, and his wife refuses to accept that he is dead. When Chris invites Larry’s one-time girlfriend Ann (Eryn Jean Norvill, with surprises of her own) to visit, with marriage in mind, everything changes.
Ann used to live next door – until her father, Joe’s business partner, was imprisoned for selling cracked cylinder heads to the US Air Force. Twenty-one pilots died as a result of the faulty munitions and his failure to speak up. Joe, originally implicated in the crime, was ultimately exonerated.
But was Joe innocent? Ann’s brother George (Josh McConville, turbulent and full of regret) arrives to deliver some long-overdue information, and the family shatters.
Williams has a particular sense of personal traumas and the ways they reflect a broken world. His plays unfold with a terrible sense of inevitability and, in the case of All My Sons, consequence. In his production, an uncomplicated life inevitably has knotty roots.
The ensemble is likeable, relatable, and devastatingly unbearable when they must be. Nevin, distraught but coping – her son Larry must be alive, or else her husband has been a part of the system that killed him – keeps her fragility in her fingers as they smooth but never crease an old note, and her toughness in her words, tossing wry comments at her family.
Chris is trying to ease his family out of the past and into something more functional – letting go of Larry, welcoming Ann into the family – but he can’t quite align himself with them either. That conflict plays out remarkably in Ryan, whose Chris is never sanctimonious, always thoughtful, and a little resentful. Kate and Chris are the reason we never quite buy Joe’s attempt at being light and keeping sweet, seen keenly through his casual chats with a host of neighbours.
As the play comes to its terrible conclusion and Joe finally feels the heavy consequences of his self-interested actions, the family house (designed by Alice Babidge and operating as a personality-less façade for much of the play) finally opens up. The wall rises and we see Chris move through this quintessential house to look for his father. We sense the intense discomfort of this inner sanctum: the personal is almost too horrific to consider.
All My Sons it is not at its heart a tragedy. Joe’s actions to protect his family are not noble. It is Chris who articulates the central dilemma of MIller’s play, when he asks his father: “Don’t you live in the world?” Williams builds to this question with care, and Ryan’s delivery is heartfelt and tinged with hopelessness – we feel him reckoning with his own participation in a society driven by self-interest and self-preservation.
In Australia, it is difficult to live one’s life without doing harm to someone beyond our family. Stores designed for our convenience exploit and abuse their workers; we live on land stolen from its original indigenous occupants; we have supported with our votes or our silence bipartisan policies that treat refugees inhumanely. We are insular; we protect ‘our own’ before we reach out a hand.
Theatre is an arena for making sense of the world, and for as long we struggle with living in the world and our place in a global community, All My Sons will be on our stages. It prompts thought; it reflects our weaker parts; it offers hope. Joe Keller had numerous chances to do something for a common good instead of his own good. So do we. Make the next decision the right one.