The shoeshine is scuffed and the smile has turned grim; his shoulders sag and every line of his face and body says “exhaustion.” Willy Loman has come home from the road.
Arthur Miller’s 1949 hit, “Death of a Salesman” won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, the Drama Critics’ Circle Award, and twelve Tonys, but unlike so many hits of another age, it didn’t fade quietly away. The strange tragedy of the forgotten man trapped inside his own head lives on for the same reason all classics do – it speaks to times other than its own.
This is where I’m going to cut to the chase. Having seen a number (we’ll call it “heaven knows how many”) of shows at the little all-volunteer theatre in Charlottesville, I can say unequivocally that the core cast of “Death of a Salesman” makes this the most powerful performance of a drama I have ever seen on the Live Arts stage.
I have a few quibbles, of course, but those come later. The important point is the success of Debra Drummond and Steve Tharp as Linda and Willy Loman, and Martyn Kyle and (Culpeper’s own) Taylor Ballard as brothers Biff and Happy. When any combination of these four are engaged in their scenes, the tension is palpable. Yes, they have one of the all-time great scripts to work from, but under direction of William Rough the focus is precise, and the sense of inevitability has the measured progression of a slowing waking volcano.
Kyle’s Willy Loman is the heart of the story from which all turmoil, misplaced dreams, and explosive conflict must radiate. It takes about ten seconds to forget the famous Dustin Hoffman performance and buy into the big rumpled man with the face that looks like it’s been slept in. The sudden stabs of anger alternating with pathetic optimism create a centrifuge of dysfunction that envelopes the Loman family. But where Linda enables it with desperately hopeful chirping and Happy feeds Willy’s obsession with “big deals”, only Biff refuses to play the game any longer.
But something else is eating Willy, and not just that the buyers are no longer buying and he’s lost his salary. Fluidly segued flashbacks illuminate not only his hero-worship of brother Ben (Karl Pfefferkorn), who seemed to understand how to make the world work for him, but the terrible moment when Biff first saw him for who he really was. Willy Loman can no longer fool anyone with his big talk and posturing about important people and being “well liked.” Years of hiding his secret from Linda and pretending it never happened are taking their toll.
His neighbor Bernard (Richard Cooper) is a clearly drawn character with an easy-going sense of himself and the world around him. He doesn’t change even as his offers of help are rebuffed and Willy’s downward spiral becomes more dramatic. His son Bernard (Winston Smith) grows from teenage Biff-worshipper in flashback to adult lawyer on his way to the Supreme Court. As an adult, he’s modest and in control. In the flashbacks, however, the exaggerated “geek-walk” is a distraction in an ensemble that delivers magical realism.
Willy’s confrontation with Howard Wagner (Matt Yohe), the founder’s son, is a masterpiece of contrast, delicately exposing how the cold, sane world of business regards its used-up cogs. When a boss half your age starts calling you “kid”, it’s all over.
The one element that doesn’t measure up to the quality of the play is the scene design. I don’t like to criticize tech in an all-volunteer theatre, but I have seen shows on this stage with sets that could hold their own against small professional theatres. The one set area staging that serves this vehicle creates awkwardness that shouldn’t exist. Biff’s bed is just inches above the refrigerator. Linda and Willy’s bedroom appears to be part of the kitchen. And with no defining walls, one actor had an uncomfortable moment of fumbling with the curtains to exit. I don’t expect Jo Mielziner’s work here, but a little more attention paid to the design could help the flow of an otherwise well-paced show.
For anti-capitalists, “Death of a Salesman” is an indictment of capitalism, a view that stridently overlooks the multiple layers of nature, nurture, and culture in Willy Loman, a man who balances his dreams of fortune on a shoeshine, a smile, and endless self-deception. Attention must indeed be paid, but that doesn’t mean there is a solution.
Maggie Lawrence is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association. She is a retired English and drama teacher.
WANT TO GO?
What: “Death of a Salesman”
Where: Live Arts, 123 E. Water St., Charlottesville, Va.
Call: (434) 977-4177 or visit livearts.org
Playing through June 4