Interpreting a performance of All My Sons

Arthur Miller All My Sons blog

‘It’s dollars and cents, nickels and dimes; war and peace, it’s nickels and dimes, what’s clean?  Half the goddam country is gotta go if I go,’  All My Sons, Act 3

Arthur Miller’s All My Sons (1947) has been attracting audiences with two major revivals:  Sally Field and Bill Pullman star in the acclaimed Old Vic revival, while, on the other side of the Atlantic, Annette Bening and Tracy Letts lead a popular Broadway production. Its themes of capitalism, guilt and justice may hold fresh relevance for audiences who daily see examples of corporate misdeeds or tarnished public figures.  In addition, the complex portrayals of family, grief and community offer actors powerful roles and audiences characters with whom they can sympathise.

Having just seen the Old Vic production, below are my impressions of some of the key production choices, which can be used to provoke classroom discussion.  The final few questions are to encourage students to delve deeper into possible different interpretations of the play.

Set design:  In this play, Miller observed Aristotle’s unities.  The play takes place in a single place, the ‘back yard’ of the Kellers’ Ohio home, over less than twenty-four hours. The Old Vic set, designed by Max Jones, is largely naturalistic:  a simple clapboard house and a garden.  It suggests that the Kellers, despite their frequent talk of money, live modestly. But it is the large yard, framed by towering trees, rather than the house, where the action takes place.   Downstage left is an apple tree, snapped almost in half, creating an unsettling image of destruction amongst an otherwise pleasant setting.  As becomes clear, the tree, planted as a memorial to their missing son, Larry, is a powerful symbol, with the ghost of Larry hanging over all the characters’ lives.

Projections: Trees are important too in the only significant stylised aspect of the set design which is the bookending use of projections.  At the beginning of the play, a series of American images, including a flag, are projected upstage, observed by the small boy, Bert.  A startling static effect, like a faulty television, flickers and is replaced by the house sliding into place, as if emerging from the projection.  At the end of the play, the house recedes again, and, framed by the trees,  Arthur Miller’s words are projected:  ‘….but the truth, the first truth, probably, is that we are all connected, watching one another.  Even the trees.’

Costume design:  The costumes reflect the period and, like the house, are simple, functional and unshowy.  Joe’s costumes are the slightly shabby, well-worn clothes of a man easing towards retirement. The women’s clothing, including aprons and house dresses, emphasise their domestic roles. The exception is Ann, whose costumes are clearly more stylish and expensive, reflecting her time in sophisticated New York City.  In Act 1, Chris Keller is shoeless.  This is an interesting choice, making him stand out from the other characters. It suggests a certain non-conformity, which may also signify his innocence and idealism. 

Lighting design:   All My Sons spans from morning to the middle of the night.  Therefore the lighting gets progressively darker, as the family’s secrets are revealed.  The most striking use of light are those coming from the house.  Ann is staying upstairs in Larry’s old room which has been kept ready for his return.  When she is offstage, the glowing light from that small window reminds the audience of Ann’s lonely plight as she sits isolated, surrounded by her deceased fiancé’s belongings.  More eerie yet is the basement light which snaps on only once, in the third act, alerting the audience to Joe’s descent to the basement where he will shortly shoot himself.

Discussion questions:

  1. In the Broadway production of All My Sons, Tracy Letts, who plays Joe Keller, appears a more typical executive than Bill Pullman’s disheveled Joe.  The bespectacled Letts wears neat, well-pressed clothes and critics have noted his resemblance to the former American Vice President Dick Cheney.  Which interpretation fits your view of Joe Keller or can you suggest other ways the part could be portrayed?
  2. At times, Sally Field plays Kate Keller with a ferocity and sharpness.  When, in Act Three, she says to Ann, ‘That’s your life, that’s your lonely life,’ it provokes shocked gasps from the audience.  Does that accord with your interpretation of that moment or could you imagine other effects that could be achieved?
  3. Most productions of the play are naturalistic and director Jeremy Herrin has guided the Old Vic cast towards realistic, nuanced performances.  However, in 2008, Simon McBurney directed a stylised Broadway production. Set on a rectangle of grass with an isolated door frame to signify the house, the performances were deliberately distancing,  beginning with the actor John Lithgow, who played Joe, reading out the opening stage directions.  In your opinion, what are the advantages and disadvantages of performing the play in a non-naturalistic style?
  4. In your opinion, what is the meaning and effect of the final quotation used in the projection of the Old Vic production? 

Oxford Playscripts: All My Sons. With the clearest and most accessible design, together with supporting activities, biography and contextual information targeting exactly the right level, this edition provides comprehensive, relevant and engaging support for students.