PETER CRAWLEYreviews All My Sonsat the GateTheatre, Dublin
You could easily call Arthur Miller’s second produced play (and his first major success) a textbook tragedy. It ticks every Aristotelian box from tragic flaws to the fateful passage of a single day; it spells out Ibsenite symbols of fallen trees, burnt-out stars and revelatory letters; and it depicts a family so tangled between the call of decency and the slide of corruption, they’d seem equally at home in a Shakespeare castle or a Eugene O’Neill retreat. The obvious challenge with a work of such diamond-cut precision is to honour the chilly intellect of the author while somehow breathing some new life into it.
Robin Lefèvre’s new production for the Gate is certainly faithful to the play, which is to say that it is inevitably uneven, reaching moments of intense dramatic heat created by some peerless performances, while also dipping into airless pockets of leaden significance. That’s the consequence of taking Miller at his word. One look at Liz Ascroft’s set, a beautifully detailed but slavishly realistic American backyard, lets you know you’re in for a very straight reading.
Joe Keller (Len Cariou) a gregarious patriarch with a wide smile and an arsenal of homespun one-liners, is a war profiteer whose defective machine parts caused the death of 21 US pilots during the second World War. Anyone with a working knowledge of Ibsen knows exactly where the sins of the father are visited, but Kate Keller (an extraordinary Barbara Brennan) waits with perverse determination for the return of her son, Larry, a serviceman missing in action for more than three years.
There’s an easy parallel to be drawn between this story of unchecked capitalism, self-interest, moral corruption and the ruin of a nation, but Lefèvre won’t amplify any resonance unnecessarily. Perhaps that’s why his production works less as commentary than as a transportative piece of period drama (and why nobody laughed at the contemporary chime of Keller wishing his company was more like General Motors). The real pulse of this show is in its performers, and while a couple of accents are so suspiciously un-American that Joe McCarthy might have subpoenaed them, we do witness some extraordinary activities.
Garrett Lombard struggles with Chris, the surviving, morally pure Keller son in love with his brother’s girl, Ann (played with arresting assurance by Niamh McCann). Mark O’Regan’s periodic commentator, Jim Bayliss, is so transparently the playwright’s proxy that he has even stolen Miller’s spectacles. But it’s Peter Gaynor who is truly brilliant, and reassuringly human, effecting slalom-pole shifts in emotion as the play’s filial revenger.
It’s this performance which lets you better appreciate the mastery of Cariou, who, backed into a corner, lets Keller’s mask slip. One extraordinary moment, which merits repeat viewing, sees him drop his charm, browbeat Gaynor into submission, and immediately re-apply his beam once more.
It’s a sequence that the play allows within its devastatingly cerebral structure. But like Brennan’s ferocious portrait of indomitability and spiritual corrosion, it’s more than any textbook could contain. Bravo.