All My Sons, first produced in 1947, was Arthur’s Miller’s first big success, establishing him as a major playwright of the day. The play is based on a true story of defects in planes supplied during the war and the question of who should take the blame for whom. Joe Keller (a great performance by Ray Shell) is the father who builds up his business for his boys. One of his sons, Larry, is reported missing during the war and everyone, except Joe’s wife Kate (Dona Croll), accepts that he is dead. Chris, the younger surviving son (Leemore Marrett Jr), wants to marry Ann (Kemi-Bo Jacobs), Larry’s former girlfriend, and his love is reciprocated but Kate wants Ann to wait for Larry whom she ‘knows’ is still alive. To complicate matters, Ann’s father, formerly a junior partner in Joe’s business, is in prison for supplying cracked cylinder heads to the air force, an action which caused the death of not a few pilots. Ann has turned her back on her father but her brother George (an angry Ashley Gerlach) visits their father in prison and comes to tell Ann what he has heard. Ann too, has a surprise up her sleeve.
It is hard to write about this play without spoiling the surprises along the way but suffice it to say that slowly various truths are revealed with devastating effects on everyone. The title suggests that family is all important: Joe tells his son Chris that everything he has done he has done for him, for his son. Chris is his responsibility. But who are his sons really and for whom is he really responsible? This is a classic Arthur Miller play moving slowly but inexorably to its tragic conclusion. There are moments of happiness and love on the way, but they only serve to emphasise the tragic consequences of a bad decision, whatever the motives for taking that action.
The Talawa Theatre Company is an all-black company, formed in 1986 to give opportunities to people from black and minority backgrounds. The actors are all excellent, bringing out the bonds and the divisions that families create (and my American neighbour assured me that the American accents were good too). The set is simple, yet effective in setting the family scene. If I was going to quibble, I would say that the programme notes, while fascinating about the prejudice against black GIs (who nevertheless signed up in droves to fight in WWII), are not relevant to the play. The play is not colour-specific; it is about family not about race, and it would have been interesting to have been told something about the making of this play.
This is a small quibble, however: the play is fascinating and this company take the play and make it their own.