What responsibility do we have towards people? Or for that matter, what responsibility does a play have toward its audience? In the revival of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, director Simon McBurney tries to answer the first question while failing in the second.
All My Sons tells the story of an American family in 1947. Kate Keller (Diane Weist) cannot let go of her son who went missing in World War II three years ago. This presents a problem when her other son, Chris Keller (Patrick Wilson), wants to marry his brother’s girlfriend, Ann Deever (Katie Holmes). Trouble is stirred up when Ann’s brother, George Deever, comes into town to question whether the Keller patriarch, Joe (John Lithgow), should have been exonerated for making faulty cylinder heads that ended up killing 21 airplane pilots in the war, something Deever’s father was incarcerated for.
The most amazing part of this production are the stellar performances by Lithgow, Weist, and Wilson. All are actors capable of tearing your heart out with their sadness and elating an audience with their joy. This makes the lackluster performance by Holmes almost bearable. Holmes looks uncomfortable onstage especially when trying to do something natural. She even puts on a fake voice for the role which sounds like “If I make my voice high, it’ll sound upbeat!” and “Oh yeah, acting on stage is talking loudly.” It is reminiscent of a high school play were the kid has to shout his lines to be heard. I assume the acoustics are better on Broadway, but no one told Holmes.
While the performances are great, it feels as though the actors have to fight against the direction. McBurney adds images projected onto a screen at the back and music to accompany the dramatic moments in the play. The images were an interesting directorial choice for certain “here and now” quality they add to the play. However, what is most respected in Miller’s writing is his naturalism. This quality was lost with the expanse of technology added to the play. As for the music, it may have been too much flair for the already emotionally charged script. I even overheard some one say as I walked out of the theater, “They didn’t need the music to stir my emotions. I got that from the acting.” Again, a tip of the hat to the brilliant performances in this show.
The most moving parts of the show are when the script just stands on its own. Arthur Miller plays are so tightly written that there is no much room for improvement. With such a good script, images and music are more of a hindrance when over exaggerated. McBurney tries to control the audience at every turn. “Here is where you should be sad. Hear the music crescendo?” This is unnecessary and backfires.
The show opens with the cast walking onto the set as Lithgow reads the name of the play and the first stage directions. The last image is of people nowadays walking on the street. The stage design is also stylized with the cast sitting on the sides of the stage and the backdrop of the house projected on a screen with a screen door in the middle for entrances and exits. It is as if the director is trying to make Miller’s work into some Brecthian political piece. The problem is, it isn’t. Distancing the world of the play from the audience just doesn’t work in this case.
Kitchen sink family drama is Miller’s forte and the reason that his work has survived for so long is because he is a genius at it. Miller could take the slightest tension between people and turn it into edge of your seat drama. It is what happens between the characters onstage‑how they interact, how they change-that should be the focus. Anything else just looks too flashy.
It seems as though McBurney doesn’t trust the audience. He disconnects them at every turn and tries to force things down their throat. In response, the audience turns away and is cold toward what should be emotionally stirring. Maybe he should’ve taken his cue from Miller and had more responsibility towards people.