I hate giving the Talawa Theatre Company anything less than an enthusiastic review, partly because it is so important to have an all black ensemble doing the work they do and partly because I have seen such amazing and innovative, thoughtful and cutting edge productions from them. They deserve our complete and unstinting support.
However, I cannot wax overly enthusiastic about their tour of Arthur Miller’s first substantial hit play, All My Sons. I can get very excited about the play itself. It is a brilliantly constructed, thought-provoking and multi-layered drama that not only stands the test of time but will invoke echoes of what is going on in the news today about hidden corruption in politics and business. It also creates a permanently topical and relevant portrayal of family relationships, the obligations of friendship and those small moments of mendacity that can never be redeemed no matter how much we try to justify them to ourselves and which can expand into complex and devastatingly destructive tragedies. Like all of Miller’s dramas All My Sons has a powerful moral centre and deals with situations and themes that are universal and always topical.
This Talawa Production of All My Sons, however, I found was too superficial and conventional in its approach. The play is another one of those long day’s journeys into night that has to begin with almost sitcom normalcy and then peel away the layers of lies and hidden crimes of its characters until you are harrowed by the human cost. The opening has to be charming, delightful; and in this case it was slow and a bit boring.
Also, like so many of Miller’s plays, All My Sons is set very much in its time – in the north-east USA just after the end of WWII; and though the programme notes have a very good essay about what it was like to be black in America at that time, the story doesn’t quite gel in this production because the all-black cast are essentially required to portray the comfortable, well-off white context of those times and for me this creates a mild but uncomfortable disconnect between the text and what we are seeing.
That said, the play is so strong that though I would call this a serviceable yet mediocre production, the evening finally has its impact through the writing and requirements of the text, rising to the strong, inevitable and very Chekhovian climax. The production is still remarkably thought provoking about the play’s themes.
Kate Keller is particularly well played by the excellent Doña Croll; and I liked Leemore Marrett Jr a lot as the son, Chris. Ray Shell conveys little of the hidden anguish and guilt of Joe Keller in the first act that are revealed later in the story. At the start he is too much the congenial clown and there is no edge to him suggesting anything hidden or menacing; but he rises to the occasion in the climactic scenes. The pacing of the play seemed to me to be a bit off kilter; but that is both the glory and problem of live performance – on an opening night in a new venue perhaps this touring company needed simply to adjust to the size and acoustic of this auditorium.
If this production comes somewhere near you (and it still has to play Birmingham, Richmond, Colchester and Malvern), it is certainly worth a visit. This is finally a perfectly competent reading of the play; and the text is so brilliant, pouncing on you like a crouching tiger by the end, that it would be a shame to miss any opportunity to experience it in performance.