All My Sons was Arthur Miller’s first popular success as a playwright, and while it’s a lesser work than Death of a Saleman or the best of his 1950s plays, there’s something especially moving about its unvarnished mixture of innocence and corruption, socio-political comment and open-hearted ideas of the Good Life. If it lacks the conviction of some of the later work (if it feels a bit programmatically tragic), it has its own sort of conviction: that of sincerity and of a young writer discovering what he can do.
All My Sons takes place on a single day in 1946, in the backyard of the Keller family in an unnamed American town. The Kellers have had an interesting war. Both sons served overseas, but only the elder, Chris, returned. The younger, Larry, was in the US Air Force and disappeared on an apparently routine flight. Since no body was found, mother Kate holds fiercely to the hope that Larry is still alive. So when Chris invites Larry’s childhood sweetheart, Ann, back to the family home with the intention of proposing to her, Kate is intent on stopping it.
Presiding over all of this – or rather, ducking in and out of responsibility as it suits him – is paterfamilias Joe. Of all the Kellers, his war was perhaps the most interesting. The owner and manager of a manufacturing plant, he is rebuilding and diversifying his business after a wartime scandal: cylinders his plant produced for the USAF malfunctioned, killing 21 American pilots. Joe was briefly jailed for this but cleared on appeal, with his partner and neighbour Steve Deever taking the fall. Steve Deever is still in jail, and Chris’s intended Ann is his daughter.
Is this maybe a bit much freight for one play, particularly one told in strict chronology using only a single location? And isn’t the looming implication – that Joe’s malfunctioning airplane cylinders might have killed his own son – just a little bit too looming? Yes and yes. But this is where Miller’s particular strain of sincerity and yearning pays dividends: he finds it genuinely tragic that manned flight (that great symbol of American aspiration) should have become the engine of mass death, and that mass death should in turn become the engine of thoughtless profit and industrial expansion. If this isn’t subtle, it is felt with unusual heat, and that heat communicates itself throughout the play.
The yearning tone is reinforced in this production by a near peerless cast, anchored by David Suchet as Joe, Stephen Campbell Moore as Chris, and in particular by Zoe Wanamaker as Kate. Realising that this is a leading female role of rare scope and wit, Wanamaker is just terrific. Where some of the other characters are maybe a little too transparent, Wanamaker keeps you guessing as to whether Kate is genuinely mad or whether her apparent madness is the cloak under which she can tell herself (and everyone else) the truth. In this company, Jemima Rooper as Ann is the only weak link. Where everyone else seems able to do wonders with a single syllable, Rooper distinguishes herself by line readings that would disgrace a Tannoy announcer.
The current run at the Apollo Theatre is directed by Howard Davies, reprising his London production of ten years ago. Miller’s best plays are such expert demonstrations of stagecraft that one wonders how much directing actually needs to be done, but the rare effects and music here are very well handled and of a piece with the whole work. When the play itself falters (the crammed final act) there’s little enough Davies can do about it, and I suspect there was little he could do either about The Apollo itself: the West End’s nastiest and most vertiginous theatre, physically unworthy of its recent reputation as one of London’s most daring.