“What kind of man are you?” bawls Chris at his father at the climax of Arthur Miller’s devastating family tragedy. It’s a scene that still, nearly 70 years after the play was written, can make an audience hold its breath, even when the audience is shivering slightly in the cool evening air. Director Timothy Sheader has rightly assessed that the Open Air Theatre, perfectly placed for alfresco comedy, is also a good fit for a bracing, public moral argument. And Miller’s exploration of responsibility, although set in a pleasant family back garden, has the remorselessness of Greek tragedy about it. This production starts rather starchily and takes time to assert a grip, but as the play twists to its conclusion it becomes, as it should be, shattering.
Like Ibsen, Miller focuses on the “life lie” – the self-deception we use to get us through life. In Joe Keller’s case, it’s a terrible one. The boss of a munitions factory during the war, he knowingly let damaged aircraft engine parts leave the plant – contributing to the deaths of 21 airmen – and allowed his business partner to take the blame. But his real lie is the one he has told himself all along: that he did it to safeguard his family’s future. It’s partly this insularity that Miller tackles, working up to Joe’s anguished realisation that “they were all my sons.” But Miller also censures a society so constructed that Joe was forced to choose between the two.
Sheader’s staging emphasises the play’s symbolism. In Lizzie Clachan’s stylised design the house is a two-dimensional façade of an American family home, emblazoned with a giant advertising picture of a squeaky-clean family. There’s good reason in this, but it’s not strictly necessary. In some ways the full scale of the piece hits you harder if it gradually rises out of a naturalistic setting. And the set proves awkward to negotiate at first, with the cast having to work hard to establish the context.
But as the play grows, so does the production, driven by some great performances. As Joe, Tom Mannion starts out with a breezy bonhomie but by the end appears to have aged 20 years. Brid Brennan is scarily brittle as his wife, clinging grimly to the determination that their younger son, missing in action, must be alive. And there is a cracking performance too from Charles Aitken as Chris, the remaining son, who can’t escape this blighted paradise without destroying it.