STRATFORD — Had the term ‘American Dream’ not existed it would of had to be invented for Arthur Miller. In Death of a Salesman, Miller’s 1949 Pulitzer Prize-winner, the disillusioned salesman Willy Loman is destroyed by what he perceives as the dream shared by all Americans.
Miller began examining the dream transformed into nightmare two years previously with All My Sons. Although his sophomore play was subsequently eclipsed by both Salesman and The Crucible — which portrays the witch trials in 17th century Salem as a metaphor for the Communist witch hunt spearheaded by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s — you wouldn’t know it from this season’s Stratford Festival production.
All My Sons soars, thanks to director Martha Henry and a brilliant cast led by Lucy Peacock and Joseph Ziegler. Henry’s production, at the Tom Patterson Theatre through September 25, is powerful and compelling enough to initiate a critical reappraisal of the drama, set in Ohio in the summer of 1946.
As in Salesman, Miller examines a sick nation through the prognosis of a single ailing family in All My Sons. The family unravels from the inside-out when a cancerous secret is revealed, exposing a terrible lie, equal parts deceit and cowardice disguised as honour. The path to truth is both harrowing and horrible — devastating to witness.
All is not as it appears in the drama. When we first meet the Kellers they are apparently an average, upper-middle-class family living in an affluent neighbourhood. It’s the kind of place where neighbours drop by uninvited and gather for weekly card games.
The family patriarch Joe owns a factory which has diversified in the flourishing post-war domestic economy after equipping aircraft with engine parts during the war. Joe’s business partner is still in jail after being convicted of knowingly distributing defective engine parts that resulted in the deaths of 21 airmen during the war. Joe was exonerated in an appeal’s trial.
Ziegler expertly depicts Joe’s fall from grace from loveable to despicable by peeling away onion layers of self-serving platitudes that are foundation stones of the American Dream: it’s either him or me; all I ever wanted was to get ahead; business is business, even in times of war; I did it for you.
Kate is Joe’s wife. She seems frail and disillusioned but as events unfold she emerges as infinitely stronger than her husband (not unlike Linda Loman). Peacock is magisterial in one of her strongest festival performances ever. Her Kate is composed of a porcelain-like fragility. Her love for her husband and sons is both unconditional and desperate.
Chris (Tim Campbell) is the eldest of two sons, the veteran who, while scarred, survived the war and is poised to replace his father as head of the company.
Ann Deever (Sarah Afful), who happens to be Joe’s imprisoned partner’s daughter, was the sweetheart of Chris’ younger brother Larry, still on record as missing in action. Chris and Ann are in love, and both believing that Larry is dead, want to marry.
Dr. Jim Bayliss (E.B. Smith) and his wife Sue (Lanise Antoine Shelley) are neighbours, as are Frank (Rodrigo Beilfus) and Lydia Lubey (Jessica B. Hill). Frank’s a professional astrologer who is working on Larry’s chart at Kate’s behest to support her belief that her son is still alive.
The Kellers fragile domestic bliss is shattered when Ann’s brother George (Michael Blake) shows up, claiming that his father is not only innocent, but was framed.
Ziegler and Peacock, who generate incendiary chemistry on stage, anchor an ensemble without blemish or weakness. It’s festival ensemble work reminiscent of Henry and the late William Hutt in Diana Leblanc’s legendary production of A Long Day’s Journey Into Night.
What makes Henry’s production revolutionary — and a must-see offering at Stratford this season — is the race-conscious casting. Casting all but the Kellers with black actors plants Miller’s common man tragedy in the heartland soil of America’s central historical fact — relations between white and black. This is more than racially inclusive casting that reflects our changing social fabric. This is interpretative casting that’s audacious, brilliant and thought-expanding.
On a personal note: I have been reviewing Stratford productions since 1984. I remember when Peacock and Ziegler joined the festival’s Young Company. It’s been exhilarating and gratifying to watch their artistic development over the years.
Tickets available at 1-800-567-1600 or online at stratford.festival.ca
(Featured image courtesy of the Stratford Festival shows Lucy Peacock with Joseph Ziegler)