Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, directed by Matthieu Labaudinière, a mechanical engineering major, recently opened at Players’ Theatre. In the director’s note at the beginning of the playbill, he states frankly, “[…] my plea to you is to not ask questions, to not read the reviews, and to simply go. Go, especially if someone says you should. Art will always make you think.” Despite Labaudinière’s suggestion that everyone should form their own interpretation of All My Sons, Miller’s classic-but-still-relevant critique of the ‘American dream’ is hard to miss. Labaudinière plays with Miller’s original critique admirably, crafting ambiguous characters that keep audiences enthralled in the struggle to determine where guilt lies.
All My Sons allows the audience to peer over the perfect white picket fence into the seemingly normal, peaceful lives of the Keller family. Joe Keller, the patriarch, is a self-made businessman who has provided his family with a comfortable living and a respectable name. Despite this front, the family is actually quite dysfunctional. Not only has one of Keller’s sons gone missing in World War II, but past complexities hidden in the depths of the family’s shame find their way out of the darkness with plenty of twists and turns along the way.
The intricate yet strangely inviting set instantly set the tone for the play, featuring a nice white house, with a swing, a pretty garden and a rocking chair on the porch: a representation of “undisturbed normality” according to Labaudinière. The first act was mostly uneventful, portraying the life of a mildly-shaky-but-moderately-comical family in the 1940s in an almost nostalgic way. The supposedly ‘perfect’ family, in their ‘perfect’ neighbourhood, wearing charming outfits and smoking pipes, are straight out of a retro sitcom. But something seems rather shallow and disconcerting. Labaudinière later explained, “I wanted to put the audience on edge, I was just setting the scene for what was to come.” The point of the first act is to show the ‘poster family’ unravelling at the seams. Throughout this first act, the actors subtly showed the dark underbelly beneath the superficiality of their ‘lovely’ family, making the audience mildly uneasy, but then would instantly return to their polite and ‘happy’ ways. Labaudinière noted that he tried to show that these characters are “real people, with real contradictions [in their character].”
The second act opens with an entire new outlook on the family, and ‘normal life’ in general. Changes in the characters’ relationships, outlooks, actions, and decisions become evident. Every ten minutes or so, my heart would start to beat with anxiety; not because of the characters’ actions per se but because it wasn’t obvious what was driving them to act this way. Labaudinière describes it as “the fine line between what is understandable and what is acceptable.” Or in other words, what we as an audience can be empathetic to is not always acceptable social behaviour. Sometimes it is impossible to see where that line is drawn.
Miller’s plays, of which Death of a Salesman is probably the most famous, focus on the tragedy of everyday people. Rather than showcasing the fall of a powerful ruler, Miller chooses instead to find the tragic in the everyday. All My Sons is so unsettling because the family’s happiness acts as a front. All My Sons leads the audience to exploration but does not provide the answer. But the point is that there is no answer: there is no perfect white picket fence nuclear family, there is no tidy way to find where guilt lies or where to place our trust. The cast’s grasp on their characters’ ambiguity feeds into Labaudinière’s convincing portrayal of the disintegrating ‘American dream,’ and All My Sons leaves audiences with lingering doubts on the ideal of perfect conformity we still strive for today.
All My Sons will be running from January 29 to February 1 at 8 p.m. at Players’ Theatre (3480 McTavish, 3rd floor). Tickets are $6 for students.