Miller’s masterpiece at 28th Minute
Director pursued ‘All My Sons’ all his life
Read this article for free:
Already have an account? Log in here »
To continue reading, please subscribe:
Monthly Digital Subscription
$4.75 per week*
- Enjoy unlimited reading on winnipegfreepress.com
- Read the E-Edition, our digital replica newspaper
- Access News Break, our award-winning app
- Play interactive puzzles
*Billed as $19.00 plus GST every four weeks. Cancel anytime.
Long before he became a professor, writer and director in Winnipeg, George Toles was a 16-year-old in Hamburg, N.Y., whose passion for the stage was ignited when he read a play that managed to devastate, excite and enrage him in equal measure: Arthur Miller’s All My Sons.
It was a work upon which the playwright staked his entire career: after the flop of his first show, 1944’s The Man Who Had All the Luck, the shrewd Miller vowed that should his followup suffer a similar fate, he’d find himself a new career.
“What I did was decide that I would write a play which would satisfy me in every conceivable way,” he told an interviewer in 1995.
It certainly had that effect on Toles, who vowed to mount a production before all was said and done.
“At that point in my life, Miller was the playwright I longed to become,” says Toles, 74, of the iconic American writer who was best known for his Pulitzer-winning drama Death of a Salesman and his tempestuous marriage to Marilyn Monroe.
So Toles tried to emulate his hero, crafting a “bad but heartfelt” homage, entitled Exodus Without Glory.
“I don’t think it had any quality to it, and I apologize to the audience who suffered through it,” he says.
Toles was not discouraged: amid an academic career spanning nearly five decades, he has had an enviable and diverse creative output, working as a story consultant, co-writer and editing guru for filmmakers such as John Paizs (Crime Wave) and Guy Maddin (Tales from the Gimli Hospital, My Winnipeg, The Saddest Music in the World.)
He’s directed stage productions of works by the likes of Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee and Eugene O’Neill.
But there was one show, and one writer, he needed to check off his bucket list.
“I’ve done a great many plays, but I’ve resolved to have never directed Miller before,” says Toles. “But I’ve wanted to do this one at some point. So here it is: the time has come.”
Listening to Toles and co-producer Kevin Ramberran, 32 — who is also playing the challenging, pivotal role of George Deever — talk about the show is an entertainment all its own. The two gleefully jostle to describe the show, which delves into the darkest corners of the American Dream and the explosive tendencies of the supposedly stable compound that is the modern nuclear family.
When the show premièred in 1947, the intent of Miller, designer Max Gorelik and director Elia Kazan was “to not simply grab the audience by the lapels, but to turn them upside down and shake them until they were trembling,” says Toles, who considers All My Sons Miller’s finest play.
Toles calls Miller “a social playwright” who throughout his career found the understated poetry of ordinary speech, manipulating the tension between the individual, the family and large social frameworks, whether those are government, industry or religion.
It’s the constancy and universality of those tensions that has allowed the works of Miller, who died in 2005, to retain their resonance.
Ramberran was introduced to All My Sons by Toles after mounting his first fringe festival production, a modern drama called Orphans, with Toles’s son Thomas.
“I had asked George for suggestions of plays he would describe as undeniable,” recalls Ramberran, an actor and restaurateur.
He loved it almost as much as his mentor did, and for years used a Deever monologue for general auditions. Like Toles, he knew upon reading Miller’s script that producing All My Sons was not a question of if but a matter of when. So when Toles called Ramberran late last year to gauge his interest, the answer was an emphatic yes.
“I picked it up again and it brought me to tears halfway through reading it,” says Ramberran. “Not to oversell it, but I literally feel like I’m flipped upside down and shaken for what I’m worth, at every single rehearsal.”
“Not to give specifics away, but it has a structurally devastating second-act climax,” Toles says. “You’d think there’s no way the third act could be anything more than a mopping-up operation with some sort of resolution.
“But that third act unquestionably takes us further still to a place where the notion of Aristotelian catharsis is no longer something you have to theorize about, because it happens to you.”
For Ramberran and Toles, bringing All My Sons to stage for the 28th Minute theatre company has been a matter of catharsis, too. Earlier in the pandemic, a show’s best-case scenario would be a half-empty theatre, ticket sales limited by public health measures.
“I’m on the board of directors for Theatre Projects Manitoba,” says Ramberran, “so I have been paying close attention to how audiences have been responding. The theatre scene is starting to pick back up and have new life breathed back into it, which is really great to see.”
In any version of 2023, mounting an independent stage drama with a two-hour-plus run-time is an endeavour involving no small amount of risk; in a pandemic-affected 2023, it’s an even more difficult proposition. But Ramberran and Toles came to the conclusion they couldn’t afford not to do this: with all the time that had been lost, producing All My Sons was an opportunity too exciting to pass up.
The risk of making theatre this jarring and challenging contributes significantly to the duo’s excitement.
“The question I have with every play that I do is: are audiences going to take to this?” Toles says. “I’m very interested in theatre that isn’t remotely pablum. I have very little use for whimsy. I’m not in the reassurance business, nor do I like plays that seem simply to exist to confirm the biases of their audiences. In other words, to tell you what you already know, and have characters as mouthpieces for attitudes or ideas which don’t really depend on the character’s life to come into being.
“I can’t say that any play will reach everyone,” he adds. “But it seems to me that if you’ve been in a family, you’re already halfway into the situation Miller gives you.”
Once the lights go down, audiences will enter into Miller’s carefully crafted emotional minefield, situated in the yard of the play’s central family, the Kellers.
Toles and Ramberran hope their version will remind audiences what’s possible when they surrender to the promise of a drawn curtain.
That surrender changed their lives. They’re willing to bet it could change yours too.
If you value coverage of Manitoba’s arts scene, help us do more.
Your contribution of $10, $25 or more will allow the Free Press to deepen our reporting on theatre, dance, music and galleries while also ensuring the broadest possible audience can access our arts journalism. BECOME AN ARTS JOURNALISM SUPPORTER Click here to learn more about the project.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.