Family solidarity, guilt and the devastating consequences of greed. Arthur Miller's deceptively parochial dissection of the shifty morality of American capitalism in his play from 1947 focuses on an engineering factory owner, Joe Keller, his wife Kate and their family and intimates who still grieve over the recent death of the Keller's son, Larry. The factory manufactured engine parts for military aircraft during WW2. A scandal blew up involving faulty parts and the deaths of American airmen, and now before our eyes entwined, seemingly buried secrets begin to resurface upon the return of Larry's ex-girlfriend and her brother to this curtain-twitching suburban neighbourhood.
This is the premise of Oxford Theatre Guild's production at the Old Fire Station this week, and those of us who imagined that their October Festen would be the OTG's pièce de résistance for 2016 found themselves having to think again. This is an Ibsenesque piece in that the dramatist sets up a superficially placid, ordered world for its characters and audience to bask in, in which everything important to the story occurred in the recent past, and then Miller cunningly squeezes out the salient facts of that fiction, at first in a trickle and then in a sequence of hammer blows.
The set, the rear of a green clapperboard house and its little garden adorned with a white bench, all gleaming with small-time prosperity, is somehow indicative of the narrow horizons from which the Keller's living son Chris is seeking to distance himself. Only a single, weather-splintered tree foreshadows the wind of change about to howl through the back yard.
Director Richard Readshaw, doubtless mindful of the fairly dense construction of the play and its important themes at a time when Donald Trump threatens to loosen the leash on rampant business interests in the United States, has adopted a measured pace that cleverly evokes the leisurely atmosphere of a tight-knit, gossiping community, and then galvanises us as one visitor after another tosses a hand grenade of argument and revelation onto the patio. This is firmly an actors' piece, offering juicy roles to its cast, all impeccably coached - not least in their terrific American accents - by Mr Readshaw.
Joe Kenneway's Joe Keller portrays with much dignity and bonhomie a proud family man, desperate to pass on to his son Chris the fruits of his labours, but living an inner nightmare of guilt as his self-justification crumbles to dust. Max Windich plays Chris quietly and coolly, easy in his movement, his low-key approach all the more effective given the squalls that hit him in due course. I would, though, perhaps have liked a little more emphasis from him on the two or three occasions in Act I where Miller uses Chris to speak to his audience more or less directly. Catherine Woolley is a convincingly skittish and later anguished Ann Deever, Chris' fiancée, and Peter Sheward, the bearer of the news and accusation that lead inexorably to disaster, is suitably uncomfortable in his skin, torn between loyalties. I also especially enjoyed Ashley Hunt's jovial, tactless neighbour.
But I'll save the best to last: as Kate Keller, Joe's wife, worn-down by anxiety, longing and soured family loyalty, Gloria Wright handles beautifully the look and the heart of the woman, not least when the torrents of words cascading from her lips at times of high emotion threaten to overwhelm her. I had the impression that Ms Wright was reaching deep inside herself in search of reserves of feeling and energy, and was then able to express these before us on stage. This was a performance to be treasured, a tour de force.
This is compelling, adult theatre. At a time of year when the drama landscape is littered with glass slippers, magic lamps and beanstalks, Oxford Theatre Guild has served up a stiff antidote to all of that, an experience not to be missed.