Arthur Miller’s first Broadway success has remained popular since it premiered in 1947. In a way that’s surprising. It’s a play that borrows shamelessly from Greek tragedy, Chekhov, O’Neill and Odets. What saves it from being merely imitative is how well it combines these things. It’s a stunningly crafted play, as this production, led by Hollywood superstars Bill Pullman and Sally Field, and directed by Headlong’s Jeremy Herrin, superbly demonstrates.
From the outset, Max Jones’ set suggests that the veneer of the wholesome American Keller family isn’t what it seems. On the surface it’s a postcard-perfect wooden house with a porch and a squeaky screen door. But look closer and the turf is blatantly astro, the bulbs producing all that beating sunlight are clearly visible and there are wires holding up the trees. The set is a reminder that the American idyll is never as perfect as it appears on the surface.
Miller explores all the ways we can lie to ourselves. Factory owner Joe Keller (Pullman), his wife Kate (Field) and their son Chris (Colin Morgan) are still mourning the disappearance of son Larry. Kate refuses to accept that he’s probably dead. Then there’s the question of Joe’s involvement with the defective aircraft parts that resulted in the deaths of 21 young pilots.
Another production of All My Sons has just opened on Broadway with Annette Bening and Tracy Letts. It feels like we’ve got the better deal here in London. Field’s Kate looks like a woman who suddenly, almost accidentally, grew old. Little shoots of youth still poke through. Her voice is feeble and wistful, half stuck in the past, but she snaps forcefully back to the present whenever she wants.
Pullman’s Joe, meanwhile, is a combination of gentle, benevolent retiree – a man who played the American game and won, and is now enjoying its spoils – and a little kid who’s bewildered by the world and what it’s got in store for him. He’s languid, cool, and loveable – until he isn’t.
There’s a threatening oddness to Morgan’s Chris. His performance is a shade too intense. He laughs too loudly and grabs hold of Larry’s girlfriend Ann too hard. He sits and stands like he’s playing a character rather than simply playing himself. In contrast, Jenna Coleman underplays things. Her Ann is perfectly composed, but her calculated blankness works well.
There’s also a fantastically nervy, agitated performance from Oliver Johnstone as Ann’s brother George. “There’s blood in his eyes”, one character says of him, and Johnstone makes you believe it.
Herrin’s production has not been modernised in any way. It contains no concepts or gimmicks. In this year of great Miller revivals, it will undoubtedly prove to be one of the safest, most traditional takes. But its power lies in the way it makes a great play as great as it can be: in the finesse and in the details – like the squeak of the screen door, rasping in the silence like a scream that’s been trying to escape this picture-perfect American home for years.