Death of a Salesman
By Arthur Miller
Directed by Timothy Bond
Produced by Arena Stage
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Arthur Miller was the best playwright of his generation. Death of a Salesman was his best play. And Arena’s production of it … brothers and sisters, it doesn’t get much better than this.
It should come as no surprise that Rick Foucheux is superb as Willy Loman, thick with false hopes and the lies he tells himself. But what is telling about this production is that Cliff Williams III is also superb as Stanley the waiter; that Virginia Kull is superb in her ten-minute walk-on as a good-time lady, and that quality runs up and down this play like Horowitz playing the scales. For that, all hail Timothy Bond, a Howard graduate (and currently Producing Artistic Director at Syracuse Stage) making his Arena directorial debut.
Death of a Salesman is so integral a part of our theatrical lives that we forget how radical a departure it was when it debuted 59 years ago. As senior dramaturg Mark Bly points out in his excellent program notes, Mister Roberts director Joshua Logan claimed that “no audience would be able to follow the story and no one would ever be sure whether Willy was imagining or really living through one or another scene in the play.” Miller did a bold thing, summoning Willy’s dreams about the past to the stage to intermingle with his miserable present, and Bond, knowing that he has the chops and the cast to do it, meets Miller boldness for boldness, throwing the remembered and imagined scenes on the stage without any efforts to artificially separate them from the present tense. The result is clean, clear, honest and profoundly moving.
To recap: Willy Loman (Foucheux) is a man whose life has inched past the two-minute warning. At 63, he can no longer make the weekly seven-hundred-mile trip from New York through his New England sales territory. What’s more, his employer has taken away his salary – he now works on commission only. What dreams he has left are invested in his sons – principally Biff (Jeremy S. Holm), a 34-year-old failure who can’t seem to hold a job for more than six months, but also Happy (Tim Getman), a minor functionary in the retail trades who derives his bitter pleasures from sleeping with his bosses’ girlfriends. While he has lost his dreams, Willy maintains his capacity for self-deception, stoutly insisting that he is a successful salesman who people love while clandestinely borrowing money from his neighbor Charley (Noble Shropshire) to make ends meet.
Willy is superb at self-deception but works hard at the deception of others, which to Miller is what salesmanship is. He tries to convince the hapless Biff to borrow business startup money from an old employer.. He attempts to lobby his own employer (Stephen F. Schmidt) to permit him to drop his New England assignment and work out of New York, with disastrous results. He remembers the old days when Biff was a star high school quarterback and Willie could do no wrong in the eyes of his sons, and tries to imagine what went wrong.
His wife (Nancy Robinette) knows Willy to be a failure but, blessedly, loves him anyway for his singular accomplishment: to labor like a dog for his family. Indeed, his failure makes him greater in her eyes, since it requires a profoundly greater effort on his part just to keep his family alive. Willy grows increasingly terrified of the way his life is turning out, in part, because he cannot imagine how he seems to her.
The ghost of Willy’s older brother Ben (J. Fred Shiffman) hangs over the play. Ben was a relentless risk-taker who made his money – big money – in Africa. He offered Willy a share of the adventure – once – and Willy refused, wrongly imagining himself to be successful in New York. He never heard from Ben again.
This is drama powered by rocket fuel, and Miller wastes no time slamming the accelerator to the floor. Neither does Arena Stage. Willy is so infused with failure that you can smell it coming off Foucheux, in much the same way as Satan is said to smell of sulphur. Robinette is a human saint – full of passion and wonderfully vulnerable, yet so radiant with virtue that if she were suddenly to sprout wings and fly around the stage, it would not seem out of place. Holm makes Biff’s confusion and agony lucid before he says a single word. Although Getman plays Hap a little too manic for my taste, there is no question that the seeds of a future Willy Loman are in the character, and Getman lets us see those seeds.
This high quality shows everywhere – in Shropshires’ wise and waspy Charley, in Louis Cancelmi as Charley’s nerd son, who grows up to be a fabulously successful lawyer, in Schmidt’s cretin of a boss, in the chameleonic Naomi Jacobson. It shows particularly in Shiffman, a wonderful comic actor who is here as frightening as if he had fangs. Dressed in an ice-cream suit (Laurie Churba Kohn does the costume design) and speaking with the sort of calm that only the dead can muster, Shiffman reminds us that the actor who can do comedy can do everything.
Finally, for those of you who have wondered whether Arena Stage’s temporary quarters in Arlington would be sufficient for a full-scale play: put your minds at ease. Loy Arecenas’ expansive set easily accomodates a bedroom, a kitchen, and a third undefined space, and the large (13-actor) cast gracefully and easily pilots its way through it.
There is not a wasted word, gesture or movement in this wonderful production. It is the shortest two hours and forty-five minutes you will spend in a theater.
Running Time: 2:45, including one 15-minute intermission.
When: Because Death of a Salesman is running in rep with View from the Bridge, dates for each show are scrambled across the next two months. The following are the dates and times for Death of a Salesman: Sunday, April 6, 7.30 p.m.; Wednesday, April 9, 7.30 p.m.; Friday, April 11, 8 p.m.; Saturday, April 12, 8 p.m.; Sunday, April 13, 2 p.m.; Tuesday, April 15, 7.30 p.m.; Thursday, April 17, 8 p.m.; Saturday, April 19, 2 p.m.; Sunday, April 20, 6 p.m.; Wednesday, April 23, 12 noon and 8 p.m.; Friday, April 25, 8 p.m.; Saturday, April 26, 8 p.m.; Tuesday, April 29, 12 noon; Thursday, May 1, 8 p.m.; Saturday, May 3, 2 p.m.; Tuesday, May 6, 7.30 p.m.; Wednesday, May 7, 12 noon; Thursday, May 8, 12 noon; Saturday, May 10, 8 p.m.; Sunday, May 11, 7.30 p.m.; Wednesday, May 14, 7.30 p.m.; Friday, May 16, 8 p.m.; Saturday, May 17, 2 p.m.; Sunday, May 18, 2 p.m. and 7.30 p.m.
Where: Arena Stage, 1800 S. Bell Street, Arlington, (Crystal City), VA 22202
Tickets: $47-$66. Go to www.arenastage.org/tickets
More information: http://www.arenastage.org/
Click here to listen to our podcast with Rick Foucheux on playing Willy Loman