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All My Sons review (Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney)

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It’s difficult to imagine Arthur Miller’s breakthrough work All My Sons will lose much of its potency or political immediacy over the next few decades. The 1947 play is a scathing indictment on the American Dream and a constant reminder that, whether we like to acknowledge it or not, ours is a society in which there must be losers for there to be winners.

Every choice we make has consequences, whether it be to use cheap electronics or clothing which has been manufactured by foreign workers in dangerous and poorly paid circumstances, or to support a war which results in hundreds of thousands of casualties.

Miller deals with these questions on a smaller scale: Joe Keller (John Howard) is the self-made, straight-talking hero of his idealistic son, Chris (Chris Ryan). But Chris doesn’t know that Joe is guilty of an extraordinary act of negligence which saw the death of 21 young soldiers.

At the same time, Joe’s wife and Chris’s mother Kate (Robyn Nevin) is awaiting the return of her other son Larry, who went missing three years ago in the war, deluding herself into believing that he’s survived.

Everything in director Kip Williams’ production frames the Kellers as the archetypal American family living their lives to the ideals of the American Dream. They’re picture perfect: Alice Babidge’s costumes and wigs are sleek and stylish while her set is a black board approximation of a two-storey suburban home, obscuring all but the slightest views inside.

Everything looks good and right, but there’s a son missing and a poison at the core of this family that can’t be driven out by any amount of money or suburban niceties.

Babidge’s design and Nick Schlieper’s surreal lighting locates this production in a dark, dream-like suburbia. But Williams’ direction is otherwise fairly traditional, with a heightened and vigorous playing style; if you have this cast of acting heavyweights to let loose on such a magnificent piece of drama, why not let them take it to the nth degree?

John Howard brings a trace of danger to the role of Joe, offset by his fatherly sweetness. There are occasional lines which get a little mangled in Howard’s accent, but the sheer emotional weight of his performance carries him across the line.

As is usually the case, Robyn Nevin’s performance is built from the ground up, with astonishing physical and vocal detail. Her Kate is constantly teetering on the edge as she fiercely defends her belief that her son will come home, and the scene in which she’s forced to face the truth is utterly devastating. It’s a performance which reminds that she’s one of Australia’s greatest actors (not that Sydney audiences needed reminding).

Eryn Jean Norvill continues to stake her claim as a major leading lady of Australian theatre, with her broad classical sensibility offset with strong and lucid instincts. She always seems to do superb work in Williams’ productions and this is no exception: her Ann is sturdy and “practical”, and the only character who looks like she might find a way forward.

The fundamental change in Chris’s relationship with his father is central to the play, and Chris Ryan defines it perfectly, particularly in the final act. And his battle with George to keep his family (and illusions) safe and protected is finely wrought.

There are fine supporting performances all around, from Anita Hegh, Bert LaBonte, John Leary, Contessa Treffone and the young Jack Ruwald (who shares the role of Bert with Toby Challenor), but Josh McConville brings surprising depth to the role of George. The character doesn’t necessarily have a lot to do except for storm onto the stage in the second act and force the Kellers to acknowledge the truth they already know, but he does some stunning work with Norvill and Nevin, who sets about manipulating him in her sweetly insidious way.

There are occasional moments where the tone isn’t perfectly set, and some of the physical scuffles are a little bit awkward (a fight director might’ve helped). But this is one of the finest productions we’ve seen in Sydney this year, ringing with a palpable sense of grief as these characters struggle to find a way to exist knowing all that they do.

And the final scene is absolutely shattering as the family is irreparably broken. Theatre doesn’t get much more powerful.

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[box]All My Sons is at the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney until July 9. Images by Zan Wimberley[/box]

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