Writer: Arthur Miller
Director: Michael Buffong
While there are some classic plays that seem to be lost to the mists of time, relying on the occasional rediscovery by fringe theatre producers to get them in front of audiences, others seem to be perennially popular, with new productions every year meaning that you could safely miss one in the knowledge that another will be along any time now. All My Sons probably falls into the latter category, and so for a production to really stand out it has to be something special. Talawa Theatre Company’s current touring production is just that.
Ellen Cairns superb set design immediately evokes the 1947 American suburb setting, with a sunny front lawn and picket fences hiding the secrets that lurk behind the front door of the house at the back of the stage. The only suggestion that all is not as rosy as it may seem comes in the form of a tree that has blown down overnight. The tree was planted for Larry, the son of Joe and Kate Keller. Larry is missing in action, and has been for three years. His mother won’t accept that he isn’t coming home.
From this beginning, the play slowly and continuously unfolds, and as it does so, the falsehoods and self-deceptions that the Keller families strength is built on start to unravel. The scope of the play extends beyond family drama, and takes in the struggles of small businesses against a faceless economy, the casual sacrifice of lives to modern warfare, and the sins, and lies, of fathers becoming walking timebombs for their children to detonate.
The cosy domesticity of the opening makes the conclusion all the more devastating, and the cast and director clearly understand this dynamic. Leemore Marrett Jr and Kemi Bo Jacobs, as the Keller’s son Chris and his soon to be wife Ann, bring an innocence and optimism to their rôles, aware of the possible implications of their engagement (Ann was the fiancée of the missing Larry) but hopeful that Kate will accept them and in turn come to terms with Larry’s disappearance. Dona Croll as Kate gives a perfect performance, unable to accept the loss of a son, and at the same time giving no hint of the darker reasons that might lie behind this. When this does emerge, her character takes on a whole new depth and her performance raises up another notch.
Alongside the question of Larry, Chris and Ann’s chances of happiness are also linked to the fact that her father is in prison as a result of an accident or oversight that lead to him sending out cracked cylinder heads that resulted in the deaths of airmen during the war. He was working for Joe Keller’s business at the time, but Keller was exonerated and returned to strengthen the business. It’s in this side of the play that the personal really interacts with the political, and where the most heart-wrenching moments are delivered. The only criticism is that, as Joe, Ray Shell inhabits the lighter side of the character superbly, but does not convince as much when his self-constructed edifice falls apart. It is left to the other characters to truly bring this home, but they do this, and you leave the theatre aware of why this is a classic example of the great American play and why almost sixty years after it was written it continues to enjoy regular revivals.
Runs until 4 April 2015, then touring| Photo Pamela Raith