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Death of a Salesman
The Vortex Theatre

Death of a Salesman
Philip Shortell, Lorri Oliver, Richard Boehler and Paul Hunton
Death of a Salesman is the second "greatest American play of the twentieth century" that I have seen this year at the Vortex Theatre. (Grammatically, there should only be one "greatest American play of the twentieth century", but it seems that there are at least a handful of them.) The first one, Long Day's Journey into Night, doesn't deserve the title. Death of a Salesman does.

I stand in awe of this script, especially considering that Arthur Miller wrote it when he was only 33 years old. So what if he never wrote anything better during the rest of his long life? I'm not sure that anybody wrote anything better in the last century.

The play is not short—it runs about three hours with one intermission—but there is not a wasted word in it. It's over sixty years old, but it hasn't dated a bit. (Today's economy, with so many middle-aged people losing their jobs with no hope of finding another one and teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, makes the play especially poignant.) The dialogue sounds as contemporary as ever (except for one word, "dast"), and practically defines "Americanese." In form, it's as complex as any Bach counterpoint. The insistent intrusions of Willy Loman's memories into the present must have seemed pretty avant garde in 1949, and they still seem innovative today. Although we have become accustomed to non-linear storytelling since then, Miller's technique has lost none of its freshness or power. In short, I think the play is just about perfect.

Like many great works of art, it leaves some questions unanswered, the main one being: What exactly is happening to Willy's mind? It's obvious that he's "losing it", but why? Is he in the early stages of dementia? Does he have schizophrenia, with uncontrollable hallucinations? Is he having what we used to call a "nervous breakdown"—which we might now call "decompensating"? Whatever is happening, it makes for great drama. By rights, Willy should be a repellent character—he's a bullshitter extraordinaire, an adulterer, a chronic liar—and yet Miller turns him into one of the most sympathetic characters in all of dramatic literature.

The story is well-known to most theatergoers—a traveling salesman outlives his usefulness to everyone except possibly his wife—so I won't rehash it. The risk you take in staging Death of a Salesman, which almost everybody has already seen or has at least read in school, is that, unless you knock it out of the park, the audience will be disappointed. I'm happy to report that this Vortex production hits a home run. Make that a grand slam.

There's not a single thing I can fault in this production. Director James Cady has gone with a traditional staging, with the set and music mirroring the famous original production of 1949. (Apparently Mike Nichols also thinks that that original staging can't be beat, since that's what used recently on Broadway.) The set design (John van der Meer), costumes (Jose Castro), lighting (John P. Aspholm), sound (Marty Epstein), and props (Marcelle Garfield Cady and Claudia Mathes) are all spot-on. Special credit to the lighting and sound operator, Steve Mauer, who did his job flawlessly.

Mr. Cady has cast the play very well, down to the smallest role. John Lopez, Tim Riley, Joni L. Lloyd, Janine O'Neill, Christy Burbank, and James Cady don't get much time on stage, but they all are very good at what they do. Theodore Hamblin is terrific as the nerdy teenage Bernard, the next-door neighbor kid, and is likewise convincing as the grownup lawyer Bernard. His father Charley, who deserves sainthood for putting up with Willy all those years, is played expertly by Tyler Alan Strand. He is new to Albuquerque but has a lot of acting experience, and it shows. I hope we see him on stage often.

I at first had reservations about Richard Boehler and Paul Hunton as Biff and Hap, the two Loman sons, because they don't physically conform to my expectations of two hunky "Adonises", as Willy calls them. But they both totally pull it off. Hunton is especially good in the sleazeball parts of Hap's role. Lorri Oliver, who was simply luminous earlier this year in A Moon for the Misbegotten, is not quite old enough or worn-down enough for the role of Linda, Willy's forever-forgiving wife, but she easily overcomes that by giving a tender and touching performance (and she can really lay into the boys when called for).

Willy Loman is the King Lear role of American theater ("Is man no more than this?"), and Philip J. Shortell does it full justice. He is the perfect age and shape for the part, and can play blustery, confused, deluded, and pathetic absolutely convincingly, sometimes all at once. When he is pushed to the floor in a pivotal scene and tumbles from one level of the stage to another, you think: This is really beyond the call of duty for a man his age. I hope he survives the run.

Some people have told me that they've seen Death of a Salesman before, it's a downer, they don't care to see it again. But my feeling is that it's well worth dropping in on the Loman family every few years. This play doesn't grow old. See this excellent Death of a Salesman while you can.

Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller is being performed at the Vortex Theatre, on Buena Vista just south of Central in Albuquerque, through 30, 2012. Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30, Sundays at 2:00. Info and reservations at vortexabq.org or (505) 247-8600.


Photo: Alan Mitchell Photography

--Dean Yannias



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