All My Sons…a theatre reviews by Deb Meyer

July 10, 2016 by Deb Meyer
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Capitalism, corruption and cover ups are familiar stomping ground in American theatre. In All My Sons, Arthur Miller’s riveting, award-winning play of 1947, these themes and more are explored in epic proportions.

In his youth, Miller was preoccupied with the search for truth and morality, with his own experience from affluence to poverty due to his father’s business failure, after the Great Depression. This was compounded by the playwright’s inability to enlist in the Second World War due to injury, resulting in a further sense of self-blame and social responsibility. For Miller, the contrast between the sacrifice of soldiers and the selfishness of economic cheats, could not have been greater.

John Howard and Chris Ryan in Sydney Theatre Company’s All My Sons © Zan Wimberley

John Howard and Chris Ryan in Sydney Theatre Company’s All My Sons © Zan Wimberley

At the core of All My Sons, as well as Miller’s next play, Death of a Salesman, lies a strong sense of uncovering the truth and search for greater social consciousness. The central protagonists are both family-minded, money-driven men living the American dream, simultaneously living a lie and risking all for the sake of financial success.

In All My Sons, a tightly structured play in three acts, Miller sets up the scene and his characters with great precision. The play is set in a suburban yard in an American town where the Keller family live – Joe (John Howard) and his wife Kate (Robin Nevin) with their son Chris (Chris Ryan). Joe believes wealth and success are available to anyone with an entrepreneurial spirit, while Kate has her own delusions, refusing to give up hope that their son Larry, missing in action for three and a half years, will one day turn up alive. Their surviving son Chris (Chris Ryan) reveals he is in love with Ann (Eryn Jean Norvill) – their former neighbour and Larry’s fiancee at the time he went missing, who returns to visit the family.

Robyn Nevin, Josh McConville and Eryn Jean Norvill in Sydney Theatre Company’s All My Sons © Zan Wimberley

Robyn Nevin, Josh McConville and Eryn Jean Norvill in Sydney Theatre Company’s All My Sons
© Zan Wimberley

To complicate the plot, Ann’s father Steve – former business partner of Joe in their engine manufacturing business, is in prison after selling cracked cylinder heads to the US Air Force, resulting in the deaths of 21 pilots. Steve was imprisoned whereas Joe was exonerated and subsequently became financially successful. When Ann’s brother George comes to the Keller home in a rage in Act II, the truth begins to unravel and in Act III, the great tragedy is finally uncovered.

At the helm of bringing this operatic piece to life is STC Resident Director Kip Williams. Following the success of Suddenly Last Summer last year, The Golden Age in January this year and Miss Julie, Williams has created a stripped back and modern staging of the play. While this reviewer sat next to him during the performance, he discussed his greatest challenge in directing the play – just how much to reveal and when during the play, so as not to give away too much, too soon. In a play with dramatic tension building to a crescendo in the final scene, Williams’ sense of timing and staging are crafted to precision. He is a clever director with a subtle approach to this classic American play and has assembled a wonderfully talented cast and crew.

As the central character, John Howard gives a powerful performance in his return, after sixteen years, to the STC. He is perfectly cast as the uneducated and simple yet solidly built businessman, whose primary value in life is to make money. Howard’s performance is more solid, however, in the first half, with the more emotionally demanding scenes in the second half resulting in some slurring of words.

Chris Ryan, John Howard and Eryn Jean Norvill in Sydney Theatre Company’s All My Sons © Zan Wimberley

Chris Ryan, John Howard and Eryn Jean Norvill in Sydney Theatre Company’s All My Sons
© Zan Wimberley

Robyn Nevin is brilliant as the heart broken mother, displaying an emotional range we’re fortunate to witness. She displays with great pathos the loving mother, deluded about her son Larry’s eventual return, accompanied by a need to control those around her, using nurturing as a manipulative tool.

Chris Ryan is superb as the loyal, affectionate and idealistic son and Miller’s mouthpiece for social consciousness. Ryan is equally impressive as the excitable lover as the son profoundly disturbed by his father’s lies and lack of social responsibility. Eryn Jean Norvel is luminous in the role of Ann. She plays with great conviction the beautiful and strong former neighbour of the Keller’s, who stands up to Kate’s stubbornness and ultimately has the final power.

Other cast members are equally impressive, with Anita Hegh, Bert Labonte, Contessa Treffone and John Leary as the Keller’s long time neighbours, and Josh McConville as Ann’s brother George, who despite his late arrival in the play, packs a powerful punch and demonstrates great emotional versatility. Voice coach Charmian Gradwell ensures American accents of all the cast are flawless.

Set design by Alice Babidge greatly enhances the epic nature of the play, with heightened scaling used to dramatic effect in the cavernous Roslyn Packer Theatre. The exterior of the suburban back yard is slick and modernist with darkly coloured high walls and simple square cut outs for the windows. Furniture and props are minimal, save for a table and chairs to one side and to the other, a symbolically fallen tree, planted after Larry went missing. Effective lighting design by Nick Schlieper significantly enhances the dramatic tension in the play as does the evocative sound design by Max Lyandvert.

Whilst Miller’s play deals with the acute loss of life after World War II, pitted against a money obsessed American society, All My Sons has a timelessness that resonates profoundly today. With our current climate of political instability and misinformation, coupled with a plethora of broader moral dilemmas of our time, the search for truth and demand for greater social responsibility that the play promotes, could not be more relevant

All My Sons by Arthur Miller

Produced by Sydney Theatre Company and UBS

The Roslyn Packer Theatre

Directed by Kip Williams

Until July 9, 2016

Sydney Opera House Box Office (02) 9250 7777



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