Sally Field and Bill Pullman make their London stage debuts in The Old Vic’s revival of Arthur Miller’s piercing family drama.
As the house emerges from a staticky television screen, eating up the bucolic garden scene before it, the message of The Old Vic’s production of All My Sons is made abundantly clear. The perfect, polished American Dream you’ve seen advertised can be yours, leaping off the TV and into reality. Over the course of an engaging, albeit sometimes uneven, performance, All My Sons lays bare the terrible cost the pursuit of that dream exacts.
After losing one son in the war, and being exonerated of selling cracked engine heads that caused the deaths of twenty-one pilots, Joe and Kate Keller live a comfortable life in which they remember missing son Larry, but maintain their facade of innocence with a near-unwavering insistence. Their house could be anywhere in middle America, complete with white picket fence, poplar trees, and a rose-covered arbor. Still, there’s a rot at the heart of this scene, with faded paint and the odd touch of rust hinting at the unravelling to come.
Being a tragedy of the common man, any production of All My Sons lives and dies by the performance of its central character. The casting of Bill Pullman as Joe Keller, then, would seem to be a shrewd choice – marrying an affable everyman persona with enough star wattage to anchor the Old Vic’s season.
Pullman’s Keller certainly looks the part, a once-imposing man now struggling a touch with the effort of maintaining his oaken stoicism. He’s at his best when his balancing act reaches its most crucial juncture, convincing George (Oliver Johnstone) of his innocence with the practised smoothness of a salesman – indeed, you almost feel he’ll get away with it. Sure self-assurance would have been equally welcome in the opening act, where an often mumbling Keller looks rather lost, never quite sure of his role in the world or the play.
However, if that threatens a power vacuum, then it’s immediately filled by the incomparable Sally Field. By turns acid-tongued and intensely fragile, Field takes Kate Keller – a role that often lives at the extremes – and provides a steady centre, a firm hand on the tiller.
Despite the concerns of her husband and son, and the underlying insistence that she isn’t well, Field pulls the strings throughout, with her motherly disarming of George’s boundless anger a particular delight. It makes her rapid collapse upon reading Larry’s note all the more affecting, especially in comparison with Joe Keller’s offstage demise.
Ann (Jenna Coleman) and Chris (Colin Morgan), struggling to free themselves from their parent’s crimes, make for a fine couple, with enough hesitant chemistry to sell their burgeoning romance. Coleman in particular is excellent, growing ever more comfortable in the Keller household as the play progresses.
Holding back the last, final secret of the Keller clan until the climactic scene, Coleman’s serene, often playful earlier moments give no indication of the terrible knowledge she keeps, a commanding performance which often leaps to match that of Field.
Morgan gives a spirited performance; his flashes of anger upon learning that Joe shipped out the cracked engine heads knowing they’d fail perfectly elucidates the swirl of hurt and affection he feels for his father. Still, his slightly awkward accent becomes a little impermeable during the most emotional moments, which takes a some of the shine off his role.
Favouring a light touch as ever, Jeremy Herrin‘s direction is content to rely on his leading quartet more than any outlandish theatrics. The montage of Americana – a cacophony of Reaganesque rhetoric and American flags – at the play’s opening certainly grounds this production in the exploration of post-war promise and peril, but is nevertheless a tad cliche. Still, as the Keller home retreats at the close, leaving only broken men and broken dreams behind, we can only be thankful for Herrin’s decision to resist temptation and leave the denouement free of any stultifying moralism.
For all of Kate Keller’s proclamation that people “can hate so much they’ll tear the world to pieces”, the driving force of All My Sons is not hate, but guilt. Be it Ann’s guilt at keeping Larry’s secret, Chris’ guilt at surviving the war, and Joe’s guilt at his escape from justice, each character struggles under the weight of the lies they tell each other, and themselves, to survive.
Whilst a certain amount of self-deception is crucial to survival, The Old Vic’s production neatly spells out the pitfalls of adopting this as a guiding philosophy – just don’t deceive yourself into thinking it’s perfect, though.
All My Sons is at The Old Vic until June 8th, 2019.
All images: Johan Persson
Also published on Medium.