The Old Vic, London – until 8 June 2019
It is almost uncanny how an Arthur Miller play, treated respectfully, can in the most wrenchingly extreme story still catch the common rhythms and tides of family and neighbourhood. Banter, mild irritation, passing jokes and irrelevances ebb and flow even as the hard relentless current beneath is pushing the tragedy forward. It makes it real. No gimmicky signposts or updatings needed: as our breath shortens we are right where it is, in smalltown 1948 America wounded by war.
It is a day when a three-year-old tragedy has risen sharply into focus: the dead son Larry’s memorial tree blows down, his former girl-next-door fiancée Annie has been invited down from New York by the surviving brother Chris. And the mother, tidying up, finds the dead airman’s old baseball glove.
Jeremy Herrin’s direction respects this sense of a precise moment in time: there is only one bravura staging effect in Max Jones’ set, as the cosy wooden house physically shimmers forward out of a video of wartime footage at the opening, and retreats into darkness in the end as the blighted son stands alone. Apart from that, in this single garden setting a magnificent cast carry its truth unhindered.
Bill Pullman is perfect casting as Joe: the “man’s man” and patriarch, whose aircraft components factory did well out of the war. He cherishes the surviving son, Colin Morgan’s deftly impressive Chris, and amiably tolerates having his less-educated language corrected by his heir.
You might see momentarily a relaxed, successful alpha man, cheerfully joshing with the doctor, with the eccentric Frank who reads horoscopes and a neighbour’s small boy playing detectives. But even in the first scenes Pullman can with delicate subtlety suggest a tamped-down, unadmitted unease. One bad thing happened, one piece of sharp practice in the bustle of wartime provisioning…
Equally subtle is Sally Field as his wife Kate: who suddenly, electrifyingly, moves in a heartbeat from mumsy hospitality to relating a dream she had in the stormy night: her boy Larry looking down from his cockpit as it spun downward, calling for her, falling, in the roar of engines. Hairs bristle on your neck: that is exactly how dreams go after a disaster: a repeated journey to an edge , a helpless anticipation before you wake in dread. But Field returns with unnerving naturalness to the homely madness of the denial that sustains her:. Larry isn’t dead. He’ll reappear. “Certain things can never happen”.
But they did. The remorseless tide runs on: below the courtship of Annie and Chris, through moments of laughter, neatly unfolding back-story and the arrival of Annie’s brother as avenging and accusing angel, yet one with a moment’s touching vulnerability – Oliver Johnstone does it marvellously – as he almost succumbs to the charm of an old neighbourhood and Joe’s comforting manliness.
It is an intimate, unshowy production: its only fault – in the unforgiving acoustic of the Old Vic and with its barely raked seating – is some audibility problems, and even Herrin succumbs to the incurable mistake of many directors: sitting actors on the floor, downstage, for important intimate conversations so only the tall can see them. But aside from that quibble it has real greatness. Stark truths and the futility of denial vibrate through the last powerful scenes : the banality of a single fault and the guilty lies beyond it have a terrible pathos. The tragic flaw of putting “business” before the eternal finicky responsibility of the engineer is there in Chris’ howl : “Kids were hanging in the air by those [cylinder] heads”. Whether Joe’s acceptance and fate are redemptive is for us to decide: the key recognition is that it doesn’t matter whose boys died in which planes. They are all his sons. Kate’s final departure, hunched and hobbling under the weight of reality, breaks your heart.
boxoffice oldvictheatre.com to 8 june