In Simon McBurney’s production of All My Sons, Arthur Miller’s 1947 drama about a war profiteer accused of manufacturing faulty airplane parts that killed American pilots, one character asks another, “You don’t want to be the voice of God, do you?” No, that job belongs to Miller. All My Sons is a preachy, pompous piece of work, and Miller’s status as a national treasure, one who spent a lot of time poking a pointy stick into dark corners, doesn’t change that.
McBurney and his cast are guilty of aiding and abetting. The play, at least, has bone structure, yet McBurney hammers on Miller’s worst impulses instead of ferreting out the good ones. At the onset, John Lithgow, as the patriarch Joe Keller, appears onstage with his fellow actors to read us Miller’s stage direction that locates the play in “August of our era,” just in case we haven’t grasped that everyone’s speaking to “us.” As McBurney has directed them, the actors—Dianne Wiest, as Joe’s dutiful, dithery wife, Kate; Patrick Wilson as their surviving son, Chris; Katie Holmes as Ann, the woman Chris hopes to marry, even though she was engaged to his late brother—rarely speak to one another. Instead, they declaim lines like “You can know there’s a universe of people outside and you’re responsible to it” straight to the middle of the house.
Miller tempered his windiness by keeping the scale small, setting the play in an Anytown backyard. McBurney proceeds to blow it up to cathedral proportions: The actors work in front of a grayish house that dwarfs them, with images of fallen soldiers and well-meaning herds of citizens projected on the clapboards. The performers rally ’round to do their part in the message-delivery effort: Conscientiously dropping her g’s to convince us that Kate is a regular person, Wiest winds up putting her character in quotation marks. Lithgow, intoning lines like “A father is a father!,” is so busy serving up greatness he forgets to build a character.
Katie Holmes, among the least experienced actors here, is the one who’s most alive. Her line readings are tentative, and her voice has a thin quaver, but she knows that onstage, her body needs to do much of the talking. In the first act, Ann wears a sundress with a swishy, bell-like skirt, and when Holmes moves inside it, she’s a quotidian ballerina, ready for life in spite of all that threatens to drag her down. She takes the lonely route of playing a person, not an idea.