October 18, 2008

It's Mother Knows Best in "All My Sons"

The email from my longtime-ago boyfriend Stan said that he would be in town come mid-October and wanted to go with me to see a good play. That kind of request always makes me anxious (how do you know what someone else will consider a good play?) but I felt an even greater responsibility this time out because Stan now lives in Bangkok and so it’s going to be a while before he gets a chance to see another Broadway show.

I decided to take him to the new revival of All My Sons that opened at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre this week. I thought that even if it wasn’t “good”, Stan would appreciate seeing an Arthur Miller classic. And if, by some chance, he hated Miller’s work, he could still get a kick out of seeing the much-talked about stage debut of Katie Holmes since even his friends back in Thailand would probably be just as curious as you, dear reader, about how Mrs. Tom Cruise fared in her first Broadway show. But more about that later.

All My Sons was the second of Miller’s plays to make it to Broadway when it opened in 1947. The first, The Man Who Had All the Luck, had played for just four performances three years earlier (a 2002 revival managed only 62 performances) and Miller, 31 years-old and the father of two, vowed to give up playwriting if All My Sons wasn’t a success. Luckily for him (and for theater lovers) Elia Kazan signed on to direct the play. Both men ended up winning Tonys. And the production played for a then-impressive 328 performances, launching Miller’s long and illustrious career.

Audiences were riveted by the then-contemporary story of a family struggling to deal with the after effects of the recently-ended war. Joe Keller, the father in the play, is a prosperous Midwestern business man who is suspected of shipping defective plane parts during World War II. The damaged equipment caused the deaths of 23 airmen, one of whom may have been the family’s eldest son Larry, still listed as missing in action. The father and surviving son, Chris, are eager to move on. Chris has even fallen in love with and wants to marry Larry’s former fiancĂ©e Ann. But mother Kate clings to the belief that Larry is still alive.

Women are usually relegated to supporting roles in Miller’s plays. They tend to be meek, long-suffering spouses like Willy Loman’s wife Linda in Death of a Salesman or comely young objects of desire like Catherine in A View from the Bridge. It’s the men—their desperate longing for a slice of the American dream, their tragic inability to live up to images they’ve created for themselves—who hold center stage. But that’s not quite the way it is this time out.

Both John Lithgow and Patrick Wilson who play the father and son are powerful actors and they don’t hold back in any way here. In fact, there’s a mano-a-mano scene where they are so intense that I thought they might do bodily harm to one another. But for me, it is Dianne Wiest as the wife and mother who walks away with this production.

And that isn’t easy to do. All of the pre-opening publicity focused on Holmes (and although several of the critics have predictably griped about her performance, I thought she did just fine.) Later, most of the reviews fixated on the post-modern devices—heavy musical underscoring, lots of conspicuous lighting, a highly stylized set, video projections that feature stage directions as well as movie clips, and other flamboyantly self-conscious stagecraft—that British director Simon McBurney has imposed on the play.

Still, Wiest manages to break through the din with a performance that transforms a woman who might have been portrayed as a scatterbrain into the heart and soul of the production. Her Kate is a quietly fierce woman who makes her choices not because she is unable to accept the realities of life but because she knows better than anyone around her how devastating they can be.

Not everything works as well in this revival of All My Sons. But it is nearly all fascinating to watch. In my book that counts as good theater. And I’m happy to be able to say that Stan thought so too.

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