By Production Dramaturg, Cohen Ambrose
Yesterday afternoon, the company of Montana Rep’s 2016 National Touring production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons came together for the first time to read and discuss the play. Sitting around a large rectangle of tables in the stage right wing of the Montana Theatre, just beside the nearly completed set, Scenic Designer Mike Fink and Costume Designer Christine Milodragovich both offered the group some more insight into their designs. Fink was simply able to point at his work standing onstage while he shared some insights into the set’s influences, including the paintings of Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth. Milodragovich alluded to the costume fittings the actors had been attending all morning in the costume shop. It was Lighting Designer Mike Monsos and Sound Designer Zach Hamersley who gave their initial, and to the rest of us, brand new thoughts about the early beginnings of their work. Monsos shared a bit about using the upstage cyclorama to extend the set out into the sky in order to establish the movement of both the time of day and the movement of the quality, tone, and feeling of the play itself. Hamersley began by explaining that, typically, a script gives a fair amount of insight into the soundscape of a play, but that Miller only specifically notes two sound effects. He cited two main composers that he and Director Jere Hodgin wanted to bring into the production: the quintessentially American composer Aaron Copland, and Polish contemporary jazz pianist and composer Leszek Możdżer.
After the designers gave their presentations, Hodgin asked Assistant Director Joel Shura to read the opening stage directions and the first read through of the play began. First readings are always an exciting, nervous, and telling process. Actors’ various working processes become apparent right away. Some actors come prepared to offer up fairly nuanced and rehearsed portrayals of their interpretation of their character, while others come with a more skeletal and unrehearsed rendition, waiting for an intuitive connection to blossom with the other actors. Either way, Hodgin’s casting choices seemed to click together with a refreshing seamlessness and the first reading produced a wonderful sense of cohesiveness between the actors. In a truncated, two-week rehearsal process like the National Tour, many of the actors had already begun to memorize their lines, but only just enough to stay fresh and open to responding to the work of their collaborators. The reading gave Hodgin an opportunity to get a sense of each actor’s energy – the qualities of their personality, physical, vocal, emotional, and intellectual – that they brought to their character.
As the final lines were read, Shura didn’t bother reading “End of Play” or “Curtain.” Instead, everyone slowly looked up, and a long, silent pause of knowing hung in the air. Glassy eyes gazed around the circle and Mike Boland, the Connecticut-based actor playing the play’s patriarch, Joe Keller, began to slowly give his fellow actors an applause. The whole company joined in and as the applause subsided, Hodgin remarked with a broken voice that if the first reading could be so powerful, he was confident that they would have wonderful production to share with audiences around the country.
After a break, the company returned to discuss some reactions to the play. Hodgin and I gave some dramaturgical, historical, and contextual insights into the script itself, focusing mainly on the play’s social and moral critiques, its structure, and its indebtedness to the influences of Aristotle and the the great Greek playwrights Aristophanes and Sophocles, as well as to Shakespeare and Henrik Ibsen. I explained that at the time of the play’s writing, Miller was set on writing a play that “was first of all clear,” and that he revised it over and over until it was “as tight as a drum.” I commented that the play is masterfully structured, like his other great plays, to deliver a sledge-hammer blow at the climax: the car crash at the end of Death of a Salesman, Eddie Carbone’s knife to the gut at the end of A View from the Bridge, when John Proctor tears up his signature of confession at the end of The Crucible, and the fatal gunshot we hear from the cellar at the end of All My Sons are all built on a classic Greek tragic structure. This is tragedy that is built upon the ways in which the characters progress in some way from a state of ignorance to a state of knowledge, producing irrevocable feelings between them, and subsequent, inevitable actions leading to either their demise or their rebirth. We marveled at how the play is, what Miller himself called, “a revelation of process,” whereby the play’s events come together “a stitch at a time…in order to weave a tapestry before our eyes.”
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