by Lynn on June 6, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford, Ont.

Written by Arthur Miller
Directed by Martha Henry
Set by Douglas Paraschuk
Costumes by Dana Osborne
Lighting by Louise Guinand
Sound by Todd Charlton
Cast: Sarah Afful
Rodrigo Beilfuss
Michael Blake
Tim Campbell
Maxwell Croft-Fraser
Jessica B. Hill
Lucy Peacock
Brandon Scheidler
Lanise Antoine Shelley
E.B. Smith
Joseph Ziegler

All My Sons is Arthur Miller’s 1947 classic about betrayal, secrecy and their suppression with terrible results. It’s been given an exquisite production by director Martha Henry and her fine cast.

The Story. It’s 1946 in a city in Ohio. Joe and Kate Keller live a comfortable life. He owns a large factory that makes a variety of things: machine parts etc. During the war Joe had a contract with the government to make parts for airplanes. One batch was defective. Joe knew it. He ordered his business partner to patched them up and send them anyway. Joe didn’t actually go in to work that day because he said he was too sick with the flu.

The results of that directive were devastating to many people with reverberations long after the decision. There was a trial. The business partner went to jail and Joe got off because he was too sick to go to work that day.

As for the sons of Joe and Kate: Larry has been missing in action for 3 1/2 years; Chris served in the war as an officer, came home haunted because he lost many men under his leadership and now works for his father. Chris is righteous. He is also in love with Ann, Larry’s girlfriend. Everybody but Kate believes that Larry is dead. Kate will not accept that for a devastating reason. So that also means that she does not accept that Chris and Ann should marry. To add another wrinkle, Ann’s father was Joe’s business partner and is now serving time in prison. She believes her father is guilty.

The Production. Martha Henry has directed an exquisite production. It is as delicate as a spider web and as fraught with danger. The revelations of how deep the betrayals and deceit go grip you more and more tightly.

The haunting song “Lilac Wine” sung by Nina Simone captures the heartache, wounded memories and longing of the play and the production. Hearing Simone’s smoky voice softly singing yearningly about her love and wanting ‘to bring back you’ leaves you lightheaded and helpless in your seat.

The production begins in the very early hours of the morning one Sunday. Douglas Paraschuk has designed a long grassy backyard. There is a sapling downstage with a healthy growth of leaves on its branches. There is a gazebo on the other side of the Tom Patterson stage. There is a table with wooden chairs arranged in clusters. The Keller house is up stage in the corner with two steps and plants on the porch.

It’s stormy so there are leaves on the grass. The thunder gets louder and wakes Kate Keller (Lucy Peacock). Lightening strikes the sapling and cuts it to the ground. Kate comes out to check things and sees the sapling. She approaches and looks at it a long time with pursed lips. Kate planted that tree three years before, when Larry went missing. As long as the tree grew she could hold on to believing Larry is still alive. She has bags under her eyes from not sleeping properly. She has worries. As played by Peacock, Kate has the weight of the family, if not the world, on her shoulders and as the play unfolds we learn why. Kate is like a walking wound. Peacock’s performance is full of raw nerves, conflicted feelings and love.

When the storm passes and morning comes, birds sing in the background. It’s comforting, peaceful, almost idyllic in that backyard. Joe Keller (Joseph Ziegler) comes out of the house to read the paper in the backyard. He looks at the tree with a furrowed brow. He knows how this will affect Kate. He goes upstage to read his paper quietly, seeming not to give that tree a second thought. As Joe, Joseph Ziegler is an easy-going man who gets irate when accused of having done anything wrong. He walks on eggshells in many instances because he knows he did wrong, but when he’s faced with an accusation he’s all bluster and indignation.

The dynamic of that family is soon revealed in Martha Henry’s careful, detailed, perceptive direction and staging. When Chris (Tim Campbell) sees the fallen tree he knows how upset his mother will be and frets. Joe tries to react as calmly as possible, not putting focus on the event. When Kate does appear she does not react as her husband and son expect because she’s already seen it. She is occupied with other matters.

Ann (Sarah Afful) has arrived from New York. Chris has invited her. Kate doesn’t know why she has come but probably suspects that Chris is sweet on Ann. From Kate’s point of view this cannot happen. Ann is Larry’s girlfriend. To even think that she is now Chris’s girlfriend is unacceptable because that would mean that Larry is dead. Kate will not accept that.

Ann has moved on and so has Chris. That is why he felt confident in making a move to write to her. They have been writing for three years. She knows there are feelings there and is patient but wants Chris to make the next move, hence the visit.

Matters percolate and the emotions slowly rise as more and more secrets are revealed. The final secret is devastating. The family is in turmoil with many people rushing around the backyard. Chris, however, is still. He stands upstage on the back porch; his back is to the audience. He is reading a letter Ann has given him. With all the activity going on around him you cannot take your eyes off his back. His stillness speaks volumes. That’s a gutsy director, to have a vital piece of information revealed to a character facing away from the audience and not facing them so the audience can’t see his reaction. They still see his reaction—by looking at his still back. As Chris, Tim Campbell is doing some of the best work I’ve ever seen him do. This is a decent man conflicted with feelings of guilt, disgust, embarrassment and yearning. And he is full of passion and the need to do right.

And Sarah Afful as Ann is confident, patient and strong willed but graceful. Ann has gone through a lot of emotional upheaval when Larry went to war and didn’t come back. Now she has strong feelings for Chris and wants him to do right by her.

Martha Henry has written a thoughtful, well-reasoned program note on ‘colour-blind’ casting. Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino suggested Sarah Afful for the roll of Ann and Ms Henry quickly agreed. She says that “Sarah Afful is an actress of astonishing gifts and an even more astonishing heart—the perfect Ann Deever. Sarah Afful is also black.” While there is nothing in the text to suggest that Ann is black, Ms Henry cast Ms Afful thinking that at that time in America communities would be integrated. It is credible that if Ann lived next door to the Kellers that she could fall in love with one of the sons and he with her. As our society becomes more diverse and integrated it’s becoming more common to see actors cast first for their acting ability and not for their skin colour—‘colour-blind casting’ is the phrase. But as Ms Henry says, ignoring the skin colour of the actor ignores something that is visibly part of them. Often reviews make note that an actor of colour is playing a character who is not a person of colour. Is ignoring the actor’s skin colour disrespectful when writing about the actor’s ability? A puzzlement. How about this; it’s interesting that Sarah Afful is playing Ann as a person of colour. Personally I think that Sarah Afful is many things and first among them is that she is supremely talented and makes a wonderful Ann. She is also black. That is the first and last time I will ever mention it.

There is such telling detail in this production. Kate is always fussing, tidying, straightening etc. In one emotional scene she picks up a coffee cup that has been left outside and then picks up a glass with water still in it that is left on the porch. She empties the water into a plant on the floor and walks into the house with the empty cup and glass. Such a small detail that says so much about that woman.

Every single thing about this production of All My Sons is exquisite.

Special mention must be made of Todd Charlton who created the sound for this production, from finding just the right combination of birdsong that perfectly creates an idyllic backyard, to the haunting voice of Nina Simone singing “Lilac Wine”, which says everything about the atmosphere and the deep feelings of the characters. Mr. Charlton created the worlds of the plays for which he designed the sound, by finding the perfect sounds for those worlds.

Mr. Charlton died suddenly in April. His loss to the theatre is crushing.

Comment. Arthur Miller creates characters who are flawed. We’re all flawed, but we recognize our flaws and try to overcome them. Miller’s characters often tend to ignore the flaws and make up for them in other ways. For example, Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman thinks that being well-liked will lead to success and of course it doesn’t.

In All My Sons Joe Keller has done a terrible thing and has excused his involvement by being magnanimous and accommodating to his neighbours. The results are devastating to everybody. The beauty of the play is that it speaks to today as well as to the 1940s. The play is based on a true incident. Unfortunately the play keeps on echoing instances like this today. Terrific play. Wonderful production.

The Stratford Festival Presents:

Opened: June 1, 2016.
Closes: Sept. 25, 2016.
Cast: 11; 7 men, 4 women.
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes.

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