Before I was born, my mother’s twin sister died. She was 19 at the time. It’s the kind of event that can change a family forever. Even though I came along years later, I felt its impact. She was a ghost who loomed large. More importantly, we were left to build the future on the scar tissue of this family pain which would always lie beneath.
In Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, a family refuses to accept a son’s death and so it is more than a gaping wound for all. It becomes a black hole threatening to drag everyone into it.
While Jack O’Brien’s production of All My Sons is too literal, there is something to the double-edged performances, particularly from Benjamin Walker, that still make this Arthur Miller play rattle.
Chris Keller (Walker) bears the emotional and physical scars of surviving World War II but the deeper pain he suffers is from being trapped in limbo by his parents. His mother, Kate (Annette Bening), refuses to accept his older brother Larry was killed in the war. His father, Joe (Tracy Letts), won’t burst her bubble either. Three years have passed since Larry went missing in action, but Chris can not move forward. His parents have suspended time with their denial.
Chris invites Larry’s old girlfriend Ann (Francesca Carpanini) to visit in the hopes that she will marry him. But Ann brings with her the memory of more than just Larry. Ann’s father was in business with Joe and went to prison because he knowingly sold the government flawed airplane engines. Suspiciously, Joe escaped conviction.
The play can be obvious—Chris the principled, good guy versus Joe the questionable conniver and brute. While Miller is interested in morality, justice, and family, it’s his questions about loyalty to others, honesty and personal honor, and the tension that creates with family that is most interesting in this production.
It’s not the wind, rain, or lightning that shakes up the Keller family yard as much as cracking the illusion of family unity. Joe bullies everyone in the family into compliance and has for years. Kate coerces their fealty through her own fragile mental state. Chris has played the compliant peacemaker for as long as he could stand it. Now he is a shell of a man, unhappy in all aspects of his life.
There is less warmth and affection here than this play might usually have between these family members. Chris says he loves his parents and that may be true, but Walker shows a wariness that sits alongside it. It’s an ambiguity that helps the play feel less black and white and makes Chris a richer character.
Letts’s Joe wants to be seen as a benignly genial old neighborhood coot teasing the neighborhood kids. But that’s not really who he is deep down. When threatened, we see the anger rise up. No amount of pats on the back or convivial smiles can erase the image of his rage or the his barked shouts in our ears.
He’s ornery, arrogant, and defiant. The more he is pressed the more he pushes back. He’s not a learned man but he’s been a winner for a long time mostly through his own cunning and his ability to strong arm. By playing Joe in this way however, Letts makes him unsympathetic from the start. And there is not more than a little schadenfreude at wanting to see him get his comeuppance.
Bening’s Kate is manic and grasping. She’s a mix of the fabulist and the practical. Her “fragility” can feel put-on at times, like the tool she has in her arsenal to fight back. I’m not sure I ever believed her to be truly weakened or susceptible. Even her pleas to Chris to “protect” his “dumb” parents are tinged with manipulation. I credit this all as an acting choice and not a flaw. Where she might read weepy or delicate on the page, Bening plays her with a hardness underneath.
Walker may be a tall man but, in this family, he is made small by the memory of Larry. He is present but he is often invisible to them.
Walker’s Chris is twisted up with desire, waiting, and guilt. He gobbles up Ann when she invites him to and he finally lets himself a moment of pleasure. But you can also see Walker swallow back that joy like razor blades down his throat. Getting even close to happiness physically pains him with shame.
There is no peace for Chris in peacetime. Walker’s Chris is living a life he cannot savor. He proceeds as if he is always walking on a bed of nails and he smiles while doing it. His affability is a mask. It’s what is expected of him from his family and perhaps even his community.
When he finally has to confront his father, the complex confusion of Chris’s anger, disappointment, and cowardice breaks him. The physical fight is much less scary than what it does to Chris’s soul. Walker threads this all finely and his collapse at the end of the play makes you believe Chris may never find his footing again. It’s the performance that makes this production worth seeing.
The rest of the production is frustratingly pedestrian. There’s nothing particularly unique about the backyard set. It does not say anything about this family, this dynamic, or the secrets underneath. You could have substituted the set they used for Picnic at Roundabout a number of years ago and it would have also served.
The literalness of the production threatens to tank the interesting acting work because it makes the play feel creakier than it needs to.
Did we really need to see physical scars on Chris’s shirtless back? Similarly, the heavy-handed opening projections—a rendering of the storm discussed as the play starts and then a vision Kate has of Larry’s plane crashing—just repeat what we learn later. Rendering this all in black and white somehow puts a nostalgic or historic gloss on it. While it does take place in 1947, the familial fissures are not unique to this time. Why lean into it more?
I cannot imagine the reception of All My Sons when the entire audience would be untouched by war. I can see the moral principles being argued about would have hit differently then. But the themes of responsibility, personal happiness, sacrifice, and finding meaning after loss are still meaningful. It would be nice if this revival acknowledged or connected with any such contemporary relevance.