Mary B. Robinson has directed more than 70 plays––classics, contemporary plays, and new works––in New York City, Philadelphia, and cities all over the country––including Weston’s 2005 production of Copenhagen. She was the Associate Artistic Director at the Hartford Stage Company in the early 1980s, the Artistic Director of the Philadelphia Drama Guild in the early 1990s, and she currently directs annually at the Philadelphia Theatre Company. She was nominated for a Drama Desk Award in 1986 for her direction of Lemon Sky by Lanford Wilson, became the first recipient of the first Alan Schneider Directing Award in 1987, and won Philadelphia’s Barrymore Award in 1995 for her direction of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. This month, she is at the helm of Weston’s second American Masters production, Arthur Miller’s ALL MY SONS.
Credit for the fabulous interview below goes to Rena Murman, and Weston’s Education and Outreach Program. Questions in bold were posed by Rena, Robinson’s responses follow.
What is it that draws you to All My Sons?
I’ve loved the plays of Arthur Miller since first encountering them in high school, for their rich, complex characters, their honesty and authenticity, and the quintessentially American stories and themes he chooses to tell and to explore. All My Sons, while not Miller’s very first play, is his first successful one that drew a wide audience; and I love it not only for its fascinating family dynamics but also for its exploration of a person’s responsibility to the world beyond his own home––a theme he would keep returning to for his entire life as a writer, and one that certainly resonates today.
As you have studied and re-read this play, is there anything that has particularly surprised you or caught your imagination?
Recently as I’ve been reading and re-reading the play I’ve been struck with what an important role World War II plays in this family’s life––as opposed to, say, Miller’s Death of a Salesman, written only two years later, in which it’s implied that the two brothers have served in the war but it doesn’t seem crucial to their characters or relationships. Everything about the story of All My Sons hinges on what happened several years earlier, in 1944, when the two brothers were off at war and the father was arrested for shipping off faulty fighter plane parts from his factory. The events of the play, which take place in less than 24 hours in August 1947, are all precipitated by choices they made in the midst of pressures having to do with the war. This has caught my imagination because I love history and am especially drawn to plays that make it vivid and immediate, as All My Sons certainly does.
What’s the biggest challenge in directing this piece?
I would say the biggest challenge in directing All My Sons is the same as with any character-driven play: to find and cast actors who can do justice to these beautifully drawn characters, and mine them for their full complexity and depth. If we have a great cast, we have a good shot at making this play as exciting and moving an experience for the audience as Miller intended it to be. I’m happy to say that within the last week, we took a big step forward in this endeavor by casting the two lead roles of Joe and Kate Keller. David Wohl and Molly Regan are both actors I’ve known for many years and worked with before (Molly was in the production of Copenhagen I directed at Weston in 2005), and as an added bonus, they are old friends who have known each other since college––though they’ve never worked together since then. They are both as excited about working on this great play as I am, and we are all thrilled to be able to come together as a team.
What is it about Miller’s writing, –his dialogue, characters, stories, — that makes his plays so enduring?
Miller’s plays endure for many reasons: his dialogue has an honesty and muscularity that doesn’t feel dated, even though some of the idioms may have changed; his characters are truly complex and sometimes even contradictory, the way people are in real life; and the stories he chooses to tell tackle big, morally complicated questions, but never in a didactic way, because of Miller’s ability to “see it human,” as his character Joe Keller says. His people seem as real to us today as they did to audiences 70 years ago, and his stories are universal and timeless. The questions posed by All My Sons are particularly relevant in an election year.
Talk a little about your process of taking a play from the page to the stage. What are some of the most important factors in bringing characters to life with authenticity?
I think the most important factor in guiding actors as they bring their characters to life during rehearsals is to not rush the process. By the time we begin rehearsals, all the actors will have had some time to read and think about the play and their character on their own, but their relationships can only really begin to come to life when they are in the same room and can start to communicate with each other. In order for these connections to feel authentic (and many of the relationships in All My Sons are long-term or lifetime family ones), I need to give the actors the time and space to make discoveries and find as much on their own as possible. I ask a lot of questions, as we all dig deeply into the play, but I don’t supply answers in the form of specific choices and definitive staging until several weeks into the process. In my experience, finding it organically over a period of time is the way to keep it feeling real and authentic for the audience.
In an interview in 2001, William Ferrer asked Arthur Miller, “In our society of sound bites and short attention spans, is theatre anachronistic?”
Technology and social media do affect and perhaps shorten our attention spans, no question. But Arthur Miller’s writing is so tight, economic, and dynamic, that what’s going on onstage is always shifting and changing moment-to-moment––pulsing with life and electricity.
Theatre has been declared obsolete by some ever since the invention of motion pictures more than a century ago, but all the technology in the world can’t compete with the unique excitement of live actors in the same room as an audience, sharing a great story right here and right now.