This review was originally written for The Public Reviews
Arthur Miller was called up before the House of Unamerican Activities in 1956. Looking at All My Sons, his 1947 play about a hard-working family divided by a son’s idealistic despair with the American Dream, it is not difficult to understand why. With typical proficiency, Miller exposes the shameful artifice of America’s post-war unity and lays the blame squarely at commercialism’s door. Talawa Theatre Company’s production probably lacks the incendiary implications of the original, but undoubtedly shines fresh light on the eternal conflicts at the heart of the play.
Jim (Ray Shell) is an uneducated elderly factory owner living in relative comfort in post-war America; a man amongst men, who “knows how a buck is made in this world” and bases his philosophy on experience. His loving wife Kate (Doña Croll) lives in blind hope that their missing eldest son will yet return alive from service with the air force. Their youngest son Chris (Leemore Marrett Jr) is a man caught between a moral duty to his father and a hatred of small-minded selfishness of the society he has returned to from the war. His decision to marry his absent brother’s wife Ann (Kemi-Bo Jacobs) precipitates an eruption of buried shame and fresh resentment that the words ‘family crisis’ do not begin to cover.
Director Michael Buffong’s cast are entirely believable in their on-stage familiarity. Particular praise must go to Shell and Marrett Jr, whose nuanced father-son relationship is revealed in all its complexity as the play progresses, never failing to engage. The father is a personable joker who stands by the materialist American principles that have got him where he is; the son is an exasperated dreamer who longs for the altruism of the war and suffers from acute survivor’s guilt in his enjoyment of his father’s hard-earned money. They kiss, they joke, they embrace and, when the time comes, they fight with absorbing realism, which renders the emotional revelations of the second half – and their socio-political implications – all the more powerful.
Miller encourages the audience to see the hypocrisy in their own lives and the sterling performances here ensure they do – if such a convincingly unified family is capable of such deceit, then who is there that can be called honourable? It is a device made all the more potent by the predominantly black casting. By demonstrating that dishonesty in the pursuit of wealth is not merely the preserve of the white middle-class, Talawa truly do justice to Miller’s over-arching sentiment: “this is the land of the great big dogs, you don’t love a man here, you eat him.”
Designer Ellen Cairns deserves great credit for the evocative nature of the set. The entire play takes place on the doorsteps and front lawn of Jim and Kate’s home – a cast-iron bench, a lazily swaying swing-chair, and a painted backdrop of dappled trees that seem to rustle and stir in some gentle breeze. It is a place both childishly innocent and stiflingly unchanging, a pertinent reflection of the drama that unfolds in it.
One wonders whether it is possible to perform All My Sons badly, so well-constructed is Miller’s plot, so tangible his characters, and so arresting his themes. Our modern perception of the Second World War as a tragedy rather than a victory means the vicious critique of the American Way is perhaps not as biting as it would have in the immediate post-war era, but the play finds a new home – one is struck instead by the disabling nature of family ties and the ultimate need for principles in life.
Talawa deserve enormous praise for discovering such new relevance, aided by a set of immense performances. They are committed to ‘cultivating the best in emerging and established Black artists’. All My Sons proves this commitment phenomenally fruitful.