Dorrie Scott’s set for Fiona Buffini’s new production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons is dominated by two opposing structures. On the one side, the facade of a stable, clean house, built on the labours of Sean Chapman’s patriarch Joe and standing proud. On the other side, a sprawling apple tree planted for Joe and his wife Kate’s lost son, broken and falling into the back yard, its branches dangling into characters’ faces. The tree’s fall in the storm has pulled up the very stage itself; it curls upwards, revealing the mess of roots under the foundations. The image of a strong and stable family is undermined from the very start.
The choice of All My Sons was apparently inspired by Trump’s election, and the thematic links are there to be found, from a plot hinging on neglected responsibilities, to the constant search for someone to blame, to the hypocrisy of those who claim to be acting on behalf of the common person. But this production isn’t interested in big-P politics so much as in people, and Buffini’s subtle direction highlights the emotional stakes as a family are torn apart by the exposure of their world’s foundations.
Chapman’s Joe is the anchor of the production. With an East Coast clip and a blue-collar attitude, he dominates the backyard with a practised charm and a performance of his own ‘dumbness’. His neighbours question the route by which he came to his wealth, but in his own garden (which visitors have to enter via the porch of his house), he can relax away from prying eyes. When challenged, though, the steely businessman snaps into life, a simple commanding shout or, more sinisterly, a firm handshake and a “You know what I’m talking about” cowing those around him into submission. Disarming and disquieting, even as the scale of his earlier crimes is revealed, it seems impossible that anyone could shake his world.
But into the atmosphere of managed pleasantry that Joe has inculcated chime the voices of the play’s women in a series of outstanding performances. Particularly impressive is Shauna Shim’s Sue, who does wonders with a tiny part. A delightful conversation over a glass of grape juice with Eva-Jane Willis’s Ann turns into a barbed and then openly confrontational attack, as Sue orders Ann to take her fiancé far away and reveals her true feelings about Joe and Kate.
Willis herself carries a great deal of the play’s emotional weight: mourning Larry, lost in the war some years ago; getting engaged to his brother Chris (Cary Crankson); dealing with the imprisonment of her father, jailed for selling faulty plane parts that resulted in the deaths of several airmen; and being challenged throughout the play with the accusation that it was Joe, not her father, who was ultimately responsible. Willis balances perfectly Ann’s grief, honesty and self-determination, ensuring that she is never merely the victim of the emotional revelations but is always actively fighting for what she wants.
Caroline Loncq’s Kate is built up long before she first appears, with stories of her standing sobbing in the garden as the tree blew over in the preceding night. Her matter-of-fact practicality, easy wit and love for her family are endearing, but Loncq’s real achievement is in the delicacy with which she lets the cracks show. When she and Ann first meet, she implores Ann to agree with her that she is still waiting for the lost Larry; Ann’s gentle refusal, and her insistence that Larry is dead, are devastating. Loncq simultaneously does and doesn’t hear it, her world incapable of resolving itself to the idea; yet Ann’s kind but firm insistence on moving on is equally immovable. The tension between the two women, leading to Kate’s more erratic actions and outbursts later in the play, is knife-edge, the veneer of hospitality always forestalling histrionics.
The catalyst for the second half is the sudden – and quite brief – arrival of Ben Lee’s George, Ann’s brother, fresh from seeing his jailed father and hearing his side of the story. Lee, like the rest of the cast, is excellent, a nervous mess of angry, upset energy that he can’t direct properly. Watching Joe and Kate take him firmly in hand, with a combination of subtle displays of power, manipulative reminiscences, and gestures of acceptance within a family, is at times breathtaking; George’s energy drains away and leaves him looking physically smaller, at least until a throwaway remark rekindles his fire.
As the play rattles towards its final revelations and more emphasis is placed on Chris’ response to his father’s past actions, it loses some of its earlier subtlety, but by this time the sterling work of the first two acts has established all the necessary investment, and the final moments are shocking and perfectly fitting. The conflicts between business and patriotism, the self-made and the selfless, the conscience and the hand that feeds you, find a human face in this production, and the end result is both moving and dignified.
All My Sons is at Nottingham Playhouse until October 21st. For more details, click here.