As I wound through Hayward (a city I rarely explore or even pass through) I was convinced I was experiencing the dreaded Apple Maps wild goose chase that’s been at the heart of so many live theater patron late seatings. Just when it seemed I might be doomed to suffer the same late fate, from out of nowhere, the delightful Douglas Morrisson Theater appeared. Situated by a wild hillside eclectically dotted with cactus, topiaries, conifers and eucalypts the theater is as fascinating a space on the inside as its somewhat bizarre location and environmental setting are. With only minutes to spare I sat down in the grand high-ceilinged and asymmetrical space (thrilled by the ample leg room and relaxed by the warm interior wood tones) decidedly ready to devour All My Sons.
Now, I happen to not be a fan of the playwright Arthur Miller. It’s okay, I was careful to dodge the bullets of theatrical blasphemy as they came whizzing by after completion of that confession. I know, there’s a special place in hell for folks like me, I’m well aware. It’s just that I think he borrows a bit too much for my liking. He takes dark and depressing ideas (sometimes based on true stories) and structures them in a predictable Greek tragedy fashion and uses very plain unexciting language which is neither period nor contemporary and often reads to me the most boring kind of dated. They are plays that in my opionion could be told better or not at all. Still, there has to be something that people see in these stories and the way he tells them or the way they get performed, so since I hadn’t seen or read this particular play before, I was open to being surprised and hopefully converted by the end of it.
If that conversion had been the sole responsibility of the set and lighting I admit I would have been wooed and won over quite easily. With the presence and attention to detail in these technical elements, I almost expected them to appear as actual characters in the program. Layered with depth and texture, both the tangible set and the intangible lighting, filled the space with richly subtle and boldly blatant metaphor. What appears as very real at first proves to have very abstract elements and supports the action almost like a score to a film. If there was one flaw in the design it was that the strong symbolism and execution of design set an exceedingly high bar for the author and the production’s human counterpoints.
As far as the action of the play, there seemed to be a very odd lack of emotion, chemistry and tension in the first section. I kept thinking everyone was a bit too disconnected, too distant and unemotional about things that were being talked about as having certain consequences and on some level should still have appeared raw. The cast seemed talented enough, but just seemed to perform much of the first half of the play with an oddly muted tone.
Prior to the first entrance of a character in the second half there was this unrealistic sense of business as usual, despite worlds clearly being turned upside-down, but with that one entrance, I got to see exactly what I had hoped I would. A powerful and instantaneous transformation took place on that stage and I got my first glimpse into what all the fuss is about. As the temperature of the entire room basically changed and electricity shot through the cast I thought THAT’s what’s been missing, now I get it. Suddenly, everyone seemed to be related, have history, be reacting and the emotional guts of this story (and the dialogue) matched the impact of the technical visuals. The tension rose to the surface like cream and the damage and the pain of these characters was finally being exposed in a believable way. In a matter of minutes my entire feeling about the play unexpectedly changed and carried me almost all the way to the finale.
Now, it’s entirely possible this was the whole point, that this slow burn is an intentional choice (and maybe it’s the way it’s always performed). It may have been a specific decision to keep that subtext truly SUB text until the last possible breaking point. Maybe, it was indeed part of the plan to chip away at the façade of calm, well-adjusted normalcy, to use the metaphor of the play and try to cover up the small cracks until the pressure became too intense, the heat too much to handle and the play just explodes. If that was the case, I suppose I just wanted to see a bit more desperation earlier on, a bit more effort to conceal, a bit more angst and forced civility amongst the relationships and be able to recognize that process prior to the catastrophic shockwave hitting. I could see that arc working with even more frustration and passion from the get go as I think each of those actors had more in them to give. I might have even left a fan if I’d seen the fight for control and the oppression of truths take an earlier role.
I certainly liked this play more than I thought I would and as a self-proclaimed anti-Millerist, that’s definitely saying something. I saw the full potential of the play and the production through some dazzling flashes which makes me excited for the possibilities for DMT’s upcoming season which happens to be filled with one of the most diverse selections of plays I’ve seen anywhere in a long time; literally, something for everyone.
For All My Sons, though I can’t give all my jewels, I can bestow a very respectable, 3 ½ jewels out of 5 in the review tiara for a story told visually well with some exciting sparks. All My Sons plays through December 9th at the Douglas Morrisson Theatre in Hayward.