After the incredible exhilaration of A Chorus Line just 24 hours earlier (cross-reference below), the joy, hope and fun of those trying to make it on Broadway crashed and burned into the depths of shame and despair in small-town Ohio.
Arthur Miller’s first big success came to life in 1947, winning awards and honours for his take-no-prisoners tale of successful, self-made business trumping ethics and justice. With such devastating honesty in every scene, it is hard to imagine real-life deceits doing anything but wither on the vine of shame.
But with the 2008 financial crash along with the ongoing release of the Panama Papers, it seems clear that the only lesson learned by those who feel entitled to ill-gotten wealth and power remains, “Just don’t get caught.” And we can only imagine the multitude of other fraudsters, schemers and deceivers who have yet to be unmasked or laughed all the way to the grave.
Miller’s frequent use of jail applies to every adult character in Martha Henry’s magnificent, anger-fuelling production.
Joe Keller (Joseph Ziegler artfully spans the entire gamut of emotions) has convinced the neighbourhood kids that he has a jail in his house—which no one has ever seen, of course—and encourages his young deputies to bring the local scoundrels in. Yet Keller’s domain becomes his personal jail from which there is no escape once his self-serving lies are laid bare.
Kate Keller’s (Joe’s wife) jail is in her mind, unable to find the key to unlock the reality that MIA son Larry is never coming home. Lucy Peacock’s magical mix of outward practicality and seething inner pain has to be experienced to be believed.
Surviving son Chris Keller (Tim Campbell ideally builds his performance to the final explosion of his simmering anger) is locked away in the jail of familial devotion. When he finally bursts out of his “yellow” chains his reward can only scar his soul forever.
Ann Deever, Chris’ bride-to-be (once the sweetheart of Larry), has imposed upon herself a jail sentence of silence and forgiveness at all costs. (Her father is languishing in prison, thanks to employer Joe issuing a deadly order over the phone—vowing to take all responsibility but preferring to let his “little man”-subordinate take the fall when push came to shove). Sarah Afful proves to be a master of understatement and discreet foreshadowing in the pivotal role.
Ann’s brother, George (Michael Blake, after early anger is dutifully subservient to his “uppers”)—a lawyer who should be putting others in jail—handcuffs himself with the confusion of loving his former environment and aching guilt: he’s only once visited his incarcerated father and never even bothered to send a greeting card.
The neighbourhood physician, Dr. Jim Bayliss, speaks of his jail time after being supported by his wife during his internship (clearly, only men should be the breadwinners). Wife Sue has put herself behind unseen bars that are false fronts of “everything is beautiful” when her true self is still fuelled by hating the Big Man in the neighbourhood. E.B. Smith and Lanise Antoine Shelley play off of each other’s characters well—most especially when one them is not onstage but whose presence is still felt.
Frank Lubey (Rodrigo Beilfuss) is seemingly oblivious to the fact that he has been placed on lockdown by his neighbours owing to the fact he’s avoided the draft due to an ongoing age exemption. Not surprisingly, he finds solace in astrology but his release of Larry’s “favourable day” horoscope couldn’t have come at a more inopportune time: back to your cell! Wife Sue appears to be the only member of the cast not in detention, until it is realized she’s a baby machine for Frank, but harbours not a few feelings for George.
When Act III comes to its bitter end, I almost cheered with the awful fact that Joe—finally forced to fess up to his nefarious deeds—does the first honourable act of his life. Not even his mountains of dirty money (so like Lady Macbeth on Monday, cross-reference blow) can wash away his guilt.
To bond this play of misery unbound, sound designer Todd Charlton (who died just after finishing the soundscape) made a superb choice of Nina Simone’s “Lilac Wine” as the music surrounding the acts. No stranger to ravages of abuse, abandonment, drugs and alcohol, her locked away issues seem entirely at one with Miller’s creations.
And as I left the Tom Patterson Theatre in a largely angry mood given that very few if any lessons have been learned since 1947, I wondered if whomever sent the Panama Papers to the media (clearly an insider to have such widespread access) had filled his/her own pockets to overflowing before deciding to do the right thing (and never identify himself in the process). Joe Keller would likely have approved or wished he’d thought of it first. JWR