It has been 72 years since Arthur Miller’s All My Sons first bowed on Broadway, and yet, as director Jack O’Brien says, “To me, it’s as if it was written this week.”
The revival, currently playing at Broadway’s American Airlines Theatre Roundabout Theatre Company, crackles with relevance. With a cast led by Tracy Letts, Annette Bening, and Benjamin Walker (the latter two of whom earned Tony Award nominations for their performances), the production is now a 2019 Tony nominee for Best Revival of a Play.
As part of Roundabout’s Lecture Series, education dramaturg Ted Sod joined O’Brien for a post-show Q&A earlier this spring. Below is an excerpt of their conversation. Click here to read the full Q&A.
Ted Sod: This show hits me extremely hard emotionally. Is that happening for you as the director of it or have you become used to its impact?
Jack O’Brien: First of all, this is an exceptional group of actors. This is the acting equivalent of the Emerson String Quartet. The play is very complicated. It’s a dense, deeply difficult show and they keep finding it. I was destroyed at the end of the performance today. They’re really hitting their stride now. You can see they understand everything about it: what secrets are being held, who’s keeping the secrets and what it costs them. ...
The gift of Annette and Tracy and Ben and that ensemble—their patience, the time we took. It seems to me that the seeds of everything that is difficult in the world we live in now and in the state of our own dear besieged nation are in this play. The issue of deceit, of disbelief, of greed. Things like post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder—they are here. Everything we are currently suffering, Arthur put into this play. To me, it’s as if it was written this week. We are, all of us, pretty much destroyed by it.
TS: You’ve told me that when you direct, you try to keep a hands-off approach to let the actors find their own way. Yet, in this play there are so many things you have to discuss with actors. There are so many secrets and such an important timeline of who knows what and how it affects them. How important was table work on this production?
JO: With every play, musical and opera that I direct, I insist on table work. We sit down and look at the script as it’s written and ask questions and try to ferret out all the answers. Usually with a play, even with Shakespeare, by the fourth or fifth day you’ve pretty much been through it and parsed it all. Then you go back and read it through with that in mind. Then you get up and start to work. This play has resisted us, has challenged us, has haunted us for five weeks. We would get to the point where we are blocking or rehearsing a scene, a scene that’s going very well and suddenly you see that look of consternation appear on an actor’s face because they’re saying something that they don’t quite completely understand. I told them, “Always stop. I don’t care where we are. Stop, because you cannot lie.” For me, theatre is an act of faith. I mean that in the fullest sense of the word. I think it’s very interesting that the theatre and religion started together. We’re just acting some version of truth in front of you, and we are hoping to do it well enough that you will believe it. When we do that, you believe it. There’s nothing separating us. We’re sitting here and you’re sitting there and there’s air between us, but we’re in the same room breathing that same air. I think you’re sophisticated and smart enough to know a lie when you see it. You could even find it affectionate if the lie is a comedic lie and makes you laugh. We know that on certain nights, that transformation happens. The actors know that. I have a feeling that it was in the room today. I think they felt transformed. When that happens, that’s an act of faith. As John Gielgud said of technique many years ago, “Technique is for the nights you don’t feel it.”
TS: Miller builds this incredible community and everyone has something to add to this story. Can we talk a bit about some of the characters?
JO: Unscrambling this in an afternoon with you is an act of impossibility. It’s been 20 years and I’m still learning about this play. I really do feel that when we’re all gone, it will turn out that this could be Arthur’s best play. It’s about such enormous things. Say what you will about Death of a Salesman being a masterpiece, because it is. Say what you will about The Crucible being a stunningly brave work, because it is. But this work is about us and where we came from at the end of the Second World War, when we were the good guys. You can see it becoming rancid even then. To be able to suddenly unscramble this in a way that is meaningful to you or articulate from me is herculean to say the least and I don’t know that I can do it.
TS: It is a remarkable piece for that reason. The play makes you feel it emotionally and then asks you to intellectually break it down. The only way Kate Keller could carry on knowing what she seems to know is by holding on to that belief. It brings me to the son, Chris. I see him as a person with immense integrity. He is a young person who was changed by the war to such a degree that he has such hope for our whole nation, that we would be the caretakers of others. It’s clearly a family representing more than what meets the eye.
JO: How we treat veterans today, it’s right there. The extraordinary speech he has about watching his own command die and trying to put a value on what it’s worth. We sitting here don’t understand that. Maybe we can’t. Kate says at one point, “I don’t think we know him. In the war he was such a killer, and here he was afraid of mice.” There’s so much about all of us, our families, that we don’t really ever know. We live in this shade of half-truths that are the negotiations of civilization, which allow us to be civilized. There’s honor in the pain these people are protecting each other from. That’s what breaks your heart. You know they’re all fallible.
TS: [Let’s] talk about Douglas Schmidt’s work on the set. How did you and he come up with us seeing characters in the kitchen, anticipating their entrances? It gives a sense of reality and depth to things. Is that something you knew you wanted from the start?
JO: Douglas and I have a creative partnership that goes back over 40 years. ... So I called [him and Jane Greenwood, the costume designer, and Natasha Katz, the lighting designer] and said that this project had fallen in my lap and asked, “Can we do it?” Doug said yes, so we talked for a little bit, but not too much because you have to do what Miller wrote. It’s in the script. This is what he asks for. The backyard, one house, seeing the other houses, the arbor. Doug did a first pass and I thought, as is usual with his work, it’s gorgeous. It’s wonderful and real. Then we went into the rehearsal hall and I suddenly saw where we are. We’re right in front of you and I thought, oh my god, what am I going to do all night? There’s no space to act. Then I thought, oh, yes, there is. There are these buildings and life goes on inside. Maybe I’ll have people go up the driveway and disappear. Maybe I’ll have people calling from offstage. Maybe it’s bigger than we think it is. I’m going to take chances and have people’s backs to the audience. I kept saying to the cast, “Don’t be in a play.” You saw more three-quarters backs in this production than you’ve probably seen in your entire theatre-going career. I was determined to make you think that they were doing it. We even went so far as to have one rehearsal where we had a robe and slippers for Annie and had Kate sitting at the breakfast table having her breakfast in the dining room, even though only a fraction of the audience would see it. We did it until I realized, Jack, pull yourself together.
Audience Question: The character of Chris seems to be the only one who doesn’t know about the lies until the end. He is also the one who grew up with resources and money. Is the play suggesting that integrity and innocence are a privilege afforded to those who have money?
JO: There’s something missing: the war. Don’t forget that before we find him too naïve, he was a commander in the war with men under his control, most of whom he lost. Ann’s brother, George, served in the war. George read the law in the hospital because he was injured. Chris was injured, too. Kate says he can’t stand, you noticed he had some trouble walking occasionally, and you saw the scars on his back, which were obviously from that dreadful battle. These boys were overseas. I remember when I went to college there were older guys who were there on the GI bill. The Marshall Plan happened then. We felt we had a responsibility. We were late getting into that war and then once we were in, we did our very best. Where is that now? What happened to that? It pains me more than I can say at Chris’s struggle to say, “If you’ve got a new car and a new refrigerator, you cannot enjoy them unless you know what it costs.” He had seen those boys under his command die and was unable to do anything about it. That hue and cry that Annette produces at the end, “The war is over.” That’s a great missing character in this play and one from which we are too much removed. We’ve seen less glamorous, less black-and- white wars ensue in which our roles have been muddy and confused. We all have a lot of atoning and thinking to do. I liked us then better than I like us now.
Audience Question: Was there a historic event or scandal that was a precedent for the faulty equipment in this play?
TS: Miller was married to Mary Grace Slattery for a while and her mother gave him an article from a newspaper about the Wright Aeronautics Corporation conspiring with Army officials to pass defective airplane engines. That article was the inspiration for this play and Miller invented everything around it.
Audience Question: I think the society’s idea of a parent’s unconditional love for a child is fascinating, but I don’t know that society believes the inverse—that the child will always love the parent regardless of what they do. I wonder if that interpretation at the time that this was written is different than now?
JO: It’s a very interesting observation. I think when you come right down to it, all of the major, serious dramatic works somehow cross at a family situation. The dining table is lethal.