Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Solid Death of a Salesman Provides
Also see Bob's review of The Sunshine boys
Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman is regarded by many as one of the best, if not the best, American play ever written. While the tragic collapse of the American dream for a struggling middle class family can be appreciated as a straightforward, albeit poetic, drama, it is so complex and rich that it provides food for thought as to how we should live our lives - whatever our age or social status. Fifty-eight years after its premiere, Death of a Salesman remains relevant. It possesses the level of understanding of the core of the human condition which enables Shakespeare to speak to us across the centuries.
The main body of the play takes place in and outside of the mind of 63-year-old salesman Willy Loman during a desperate 24 hours of his life. The time is 1949, and the main setting is the Loman house in a middle-class Brooklyn neighborhood. Willie returns home late at night after finding himself repeatedly driving off the road while trying to drive to New England on a sales trip. Willie has been breaking down mentally for some time, and now is at the end of his tether. Already in the house are his devoted but ineffectual wife, Linda, and his visiting sons. His older son, the 34-year-old Biff, has returned home after living a wastrel existence "out West" for several years going from one short term job to another, mostly as a farm laborer. Younger son Happy is a store salesman who works as a store assistant and devotes his leisure time to being a womanizer.
No longer able to make sales, Willie is about to be coldly dumped by his employer. Willie had never been more than marginally successful as a salesman even though he had come to believe his own boasts about his past success. Willie had invested all his hopes in Biff, who had been the apple of his eye when he was a high school football star with four college scholarships from which to choose. With Biff and Happy back home with dreams of going into business together, Willie seizes on the hope that things may now turn around for his sons. However, their plans are fueled by their desire to succeed in the eyes of their failing father. The truth is that, for a myriad of reasons, the responsibility for which largely can be traced to Willie himself, "the Loman brothers" are incapable of turning their lives around. Hanging over the family is the knowledge that Willie is suicidal. Linda has found a rubber tube which Willie has attached it to a nipple on a gas pipe. Willie, who has a $20,000 life insurance policy, has decided that financially he is worth more to his family dead than alive.
Luna Stage has sought to find "fresh urgency" in this play by presenting Death of a Salesman "with an African-American Loman family striving to 'get ahead' in a white world." For me, this mission has not been accomplished. An African-American family living in a white neighborhood in Brooklyn would not have been accepted by their neighbors. Nor likely had such a familial relationship with their neighbor Charlie and his son Bernard. The lack of any mention of race during the period and situations that the play covers could not be. In fact, a black family as dysfunctional as the Lomans would have found survival far harder than depicted here. This could have been mitigated by casting African-Americans in the roles of Charlie and Bernard, and Willie's boss, Howard. However, as race is not an issue here, there is every reason to cast African-Americans in these roles. And when Luna Stage can gather so strong a cast of African-American actors to play the Lomans, their casting brings honor to Luna Stage and first class theatre to its audience.
Towering over this production is the performance of veteran actor Frankie Faison, who has made the role of Willie Loman his own. Faison's large size and strong presence add poignancy to his fall. Carefully modulating his movements, Faison makes certain that his large presence and deep voice convey a hapless blowhard dealing with circumstances which he cannot begin to comprehend. While his Willie so desperately wants to be a man to be reckoned with and feared, he can at best only hope to be ingratiating and well liked. In Willie's flashback reminiscences, Faison projects the bubbly enthusiasm of Willie at a time when he still had hope. Willie may have sown the seeds of his own failures, as many of us do, but Faison makes it clear that he loved and relied on his wife and sons, and only wanted the best for his family.
Marlyne Afflack is moving as the careworn Linda. Linda's love and devotion to Willie can be felt palpably in Afflack's performance. Brandon O'Neil Scott is fine throughout, but he is particularly moving when he finally confronts his character flaws and makes it clear that the chasm that opened up between him and Willie on one fateful day did not end his deep emotional attachment to his doting father. Jamahl Marsh brings an appropriate affability to Happy, which keeps the viewer from realizing too early that he is the son who is the least caring toward his family.
Gerard Catus is on target as Uncle Ben. A mythic presence in Willie's mind is his brother Ben who "walked into the jungle" at age 17, and walked out rich at the age of 21. Ben represents all the bygone roads we might have taken that we think would have made our lives more successful. Anthony Blaha stands out in three roles. He is winning as Charlie's nerdy, bound for success son Bernard whose innate decency never fails him; cold and arrogant as Willie's young boss, Howard; and convincingly honorable as an eager to please waiter. Leigh Poulos and Chante Lewis each do well in small, but important dual roles.
Director James Glossman has adroitly staged Salesman on a wooden floored stage in the center of the theatre with seating (just three rows deep) on all four sides. The upstairs Loman bedrooms are tucked into two corners between the banks of seats. Glossman has drawn solid performances from his entire cast. This three and a half hour production, for the most part, moves along at a good pace. However, the opening scene (prior to the first flashback) seems a bit too attenuated, and would benefit from faster pacing.
My only problem with the otherwise evocative set by Nora Chavooshian is her design for the apartment houses closing in on the Loman house. They are represented by five panels which extend out from the top of the center stage over the audience in the form of the blades of a fan. They are distracting to the eye and had me thinking that they might begin rotating at any moment. Additionally, the three or so buildings painted on the panels look more like sleek Manhattan skyscrapers then the squat six story apartment buildings which were built in Brooklyn post World War II.
Death of a Salesman is a very poetic play with a great deal of feeling for the struggles of unexceptional people to whom, as Miller observes, "attention must be paid." However, as with all great plays, it goes from the specific to the general. At its heart are real, breathing individuals whom we care for. This is likely the reason that, since I first saw this play over fifty years ago, the line that has always stayed with me was a simple question. It is about that day during Biff's senior year in high school that the hopes of the Loman family shattered irredeemably. Biff had flunked math, but was prepared to make it up in summer school. He went to talk to father, Willie, who was on the road. When Biff came home, he had already given up on himself. The grown Bernard asks:
What happened in Boston, Willie?
See Frankie Faison's memorable, deeply felt performance in Death of a Salesman at Luna Stage, and find out the answer.
Death of a Salesman continues performances (Thurs. 7:30 PM/ Fri. & Sat. 8 PM/ Sun. 2 PM) through November 11, 2007) at Luna Stage, 695 Bloomfield Ave., Montclair, N.J., 07042. Box Office: 973-744-3309; online: www.lunastage.org].
Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller; directed by James Glossman