At first glance the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park seems like a canny venue for All My Sons – a play set in Joe and Kate Keller’s backyard – but in practice, the results are less convincing, with much of Miller’s rumbling tension being lost to the air, the wind and the trees.
Miller’s play shows the disintegration of an American family over the course of a summer evening in 1947. Various truths about Joe Keller (Tom Mannnion) – ostensibly a successful factory owner and family man – are unearthed during the play and dragged out and debated in the fading light. Assumptions have been made, it turns out, lies have been believed and questions swallowed but tonight – in the mould of a good Greek tragedy – the truth will out.
The night before the play begins a tree planted in Joe’s back garden in memory of his missing son, Larry, has been blown over in a storm. Joe and his younger son, Chris (Charles Aitken), have come to accept that Larry is dead but their mother, Kate (Brid Brennen) is desperately clinging to the hope that he is not. She sees signs and omens everywhere, signals from the universe telling her that her son Larry is alive and well and will one day come walking in through the back door as if nothing ever happened. It’s why she can’t allow Chris to marry Ann (Amy Nutall), who used to be Larry’s girlfriend and who used to live next door, until her father was sent to prison for causing the deaths of 21 US airmen and the family moved to New York in disgrace.
Tom Mannion gives a commanding performance as Joe, the kindly American patriarch who, with concerns that stretch no further than the picket fence at the end of his garden, identifies himself as the provider. Brid Brennan’s turn as Joe’s wife, a robust woman made brittle by the loss of her son, is also incredibly affecting. Aitken too gives a good turn as Chris, though he is perhaps a little too thin and frilly to be believed a former captain of a squadron of fighter pilots.
It’s only really in Sheader’s direction where things start to come unstuck. The pace is maintained well enough – there’s a slow start, but it soon finds its rhythm – the only problem is the drama meted out is somewhat lost in the vast auditorium and open-air setting. Lizzie Clachan’s minimalist set doesn’t help. An Eisenhower-era billboard is used as the production’s backdrop, with smiling American faces superimposed on a picture of Joe and Kate’s white weatherboard house. It is a façade of a house – and of a family – and though this fits in with the mood of Miller’s play, it perhaps fits too well. We will come to see the family for the façade that they are, if you construct the world of the play as a façade then the game is somewhat given away. The resolution is effectively pre-empted, so there is a curious reheated feeling to the action.
But that’s not the main problem. Miller’s real genius with this play is in its rapid reversals of dramatic mood. Scenes turn on a sixpence, suddenly creating a cloying, claustrophobic atmosphere when something formerly considered a truth is exposed as an unbearable lie. It is the motor of the play, driving the characters to do what they do. But beneath the spring sky, beneath nothing but the birds and the stars, when the characters try to build this tension, the energy almost immediately evaporates.
Essentially, Sheader’s production is incredibly competent. Performances are strong, and there are nice visual set pieces which utilise the space perfectly – the filtering through the trees of the lost 21 airmen that comes towards the end of the evening is particular memorable; it’s a hammerblow that would be too much, too bombastic in the daylight, but is made eerie and unsettling by the chilly light of the moon. Nearly 70 years on, All My Sons is still an incredibly powerful examination of blame and identity, but this production – good as it is – doesn’t quite provide it the power it needs to be a truly memorable revival.