All My Sons

Lisa Chappell, Stuart Devenie, Jodie Dorday, Calum Gittins, Brenda Kendall, Andrew Laing, John Leigh, Paul Minifie, Ilona Rodgers, Erik Thomson

Written by Arthur Miller

Directed by David Berthold

All My Sons opened at the Maidment Theatre, Auckland on 22 May 1997

Arthur Miller has something of the stature here that Shakespeare has in America; the Great Foreign Playwright, whose work is generally agreed to have some kind of universal relevance.

All My Sons, like most of Miller’s work, is concerned with the dark underbelly of the American Dream. This time, it’s prosperous, postwar America under the microscope, and the cracks are just starting to show. It’s becoming evident that things are not what they seem.

This was a revelation in the States, in the Forties. It’s old news today. Watching All My Sons is like watching the dismantling of someone else’s illusions; over here, we never really believed in those myths anyway. While the play still works on the level of soap opera, its political implications (which were, after all, its raison d’etre) are sadly redundant.

Which makes Miller’s ponderousness all the more difficult to take; his characters spend a great deal of time speechifying and agonizing over what, from here, seem fairly clearcut issues of guilt and innocence.

Miller’s work demands heightened naturalism; tricky to pull off, and this production doesn’t quite make it. Despite some individually excellent performances, the cast as a whole seem tense and disconnected, never quite an ensemble, rushing from line to line without letting much develop between the words.

Ilona Rodgers and Paul Minifie, as the patriarchal couple, bring a studied theatricality to their roles that underlines the dated nature of Miller’s work. Minifie’s unable to convey either the power of the American patriarch, or the vulnerability behind the mask; Joe Keller’s grand gesture at the end of the play just isn’t credible in this production. What’s more, Minifie and Rodgers’ relationship is never convincing – and when she slaps him, with all the force of a wet fish, the limpness of that gesture betrays the lack of genuine feeling onstage.

The younger actors fare better. Erik Thomson is particularly impressive as the idealist Chris Keller, and his scenes with Lisa Chappell (Ann Deever) have an intimacy generally lacking elsewhere. And John Leigh, as Ann’s impassioned brother George, brings a genuine power and subtlety to a role that could easily have been a one-note performance.

But Miller’s words never really come off the page, and this play remains less than the sum of its parts. A fifty year old American play was always going to have an uphill battle to prove its relevance, and this production simply demonstrates that even the classics can date.

– Leonie Reynolds

First published in NZ Listener, June 14-27