All My Sons

Liam McLoughlin

Powerful performances portray the immense human costs of capitalism.
All My Sons

Robyn Nevin (Kate Keller) and John Howard (Joe Keller) in All My Sons. Photo by Zan Wimberley.

Arthur Miller believed the 'way to maturity is radicalism'. Miller’s Marxism gave him systemic explanations for his father’s business failings, a wealthy coat manufacturer who lost everything in the Great Depression. His critical understanding of capitalism was sharpened when he was denied entry into World War II because of an old football injury. Instead he observed the war with the 'inevitable unease of the survivor'. Miller wrote in his memoir: 'It was probably inevitable that the selfishness, cheating and economic rapacity on the home front should have cut into me with its contrast to the soldiers’ sacrifices and the holiness of the Allied cause. I was a stretched string waiting to be plucked, waiting, as it turned out, for All My Sons.'

And so Miller’s breakthrough success as a playwright came in 1947 when he superimposed his deeply felt critique of capitalism onto the Keller family: Joe (John Howard), the successful factory boss, his wife Kate (Robyn Nevin), and their two sons, Chris (Chris Ryan) and Larry.

The play is set in the family’s suburban yard in August, 1946, three years after the disappearance of Larry in the Pacific. Chris and Ann Deever (Eryn Jean Norvill), Larry’s girlfriend before he went missing, have fallen in love and are desperately trying to move on. Mother Kate is in denial about Larry’s death while the patriarch Joe Keller is trying to repair his reputation after being charged with selling cracked cylinder heads to the US Air Force, causing the deaths of 21 pilots. Joe is exonerated and shifts the blame to his employee Steve Deever, Ann’s father, who remains in prison. Tragedy unfolds for the Kellers as lies are uncovered and the truth is too much for the family to bear. Personal failings play their part but they almost seem like inevitable responses to the malevolent forces unleashed by capitalism.

Directed by Kip Williams, this Sydney Theatre Company production is absorbing theatre at its very best. Normally an avid note taker, by Act Two I was too engrossed in the drama to remember I had a job to do.

The entire cast gives strong performances and the leads are sublime. John Howard beautifully occupies his dual roles as lovable object of his son’s adoration and as a weak, flawed man who is highly susceptible to the corrupting influence of money. Robyn Nevin masterfully blends fragility with strength as the mother who desperately tries to hold her family together. 

Chris Ryan is affecting as the dutiful son whose world is shattered by revelations about his father and brother. The scene in Act Two when he demands the truth from Joe about his role in selling the faulty cylinders is devastatingly powerful.

Eryn Jean Norvill gives a nuanced and sensitive portrait of Ann Deever, torn between loyalty to her family and burgeoning love for Chris Keller. Josh McConville is a tour de force as Ann’s brother George Deever, smashing the brittle lies the Keller family have been telling each other for years.

Between the writing genius of Miller and the acting genius of the cast, Williams has wisely decided to keep the bells and whistles to a minimum. Alice Babidge’s suburban silhouette is cleverly faded and exposed in the same way Miller exposes the receding and deceitful dream of American capitalism.

The emotional intensity of the performances in this production serves Miller’s themes as well as he could have hoped. They draw out his views on systemic ills causing personal pain. As well articulated in the essay in the program, Miller 'wanted the audience to see not only the fault of the characters, but the way in which any one of us can make immoral choices when we become a function of capitalism, morally divorced from our own actions and responsibilities in the service of production and distribution'. We identify with all of the characters in some way, connecting us to the even greater damage caused by contemporary capitalism.

It’s a production which also highlights Miller’s views about collective responsibility as an antidote for these ills. Once Joe’s culpability for the deaths of the 21 pilots and his son Larry is revealed, Kate Keller asks Chris what more he wants from his parents than for them to be sorry. Chris says 'You can be better! Once and for all you can know there is a universe of people outside and you’re responsible to it, and unless you know that, you threw away your son because that’s how he died.'

Joe Keller, after years of denial, finally comes to a sense of collective responsibility Miller hopes could permeate society as a whole. Talking about Larry and the 21 dead pilots, Joe says 'Sure, he was my son. But I think to him they were all my sons. And I guess they were, I guess they were.'


Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

All My Sons

Written by Arthur Miller
Director: Kip Williams
Designer: Alice Babidge
Lighting Designer: Nick Schlieper
Composer and Sound Designer: Max Lyandvert
Cast: Toby Challenor, Anita Hegh, John Howard, Bert Labonte, John Leary, John McConville, Robyn Nevin, Eryn Jean Norvill, Jack Ruwald, Chris Ryan, Contessa Treffone.

Roslyn Packer Theatre
4 June – 9 July 2016


About the author

Liam McLoughlin is a freelance writer who is keen on satire, activism and the arts. He blogs at Situation Theatre and tweets from@situtheatre.