A sunny April Sunday and distractions such as spring cleaning, the Orioles or neglected reading beckon. Instead, all of those things are cast aside for sitting quietly in the dark for nearly three hours and having your heart broken.
Willie Loman, you closed the sale the moment you trudged down the aisle of Everyman Theatre, sample suitcases in each hand, shoulders stooped with exhaustion and defeat. You and the others on stage had us all in the palms of your hands, but never gave up, never stopped sealing the deal until the end when we felt every pang of pain you felt, every disappointment, every curdled emotion.
Wil Love’s towering, vigorous portrayal of Willie Loman, a small man with goodness in him, is reason enough to see Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, running in repertory with another postwar American classic, A Streetcar Named Desire, at Everyman. Yet, that is one aspect of an exceptional experience where everything gleams—the acting, the direction, the set, the lighting, the costumes, good God, even the wigs are worth mentioning.
This attention to detail and exhilarating rejuvenation of a classic makes you nostalgic for the days when more regional theaters (like Arena and Center Stage) had resident companies where you could see your favorite and familiar actors stretch and grow into various roles and tried-and-true theatrical warhorses get new life and meaning and the same level of devotion as premiere, attention-grabbing works.
Nostalgia for repertory and resident companies aside, there is not a speck of the old-timey in director Vincent M. Lancisi’s Death of a Salesman. It’s bright, vital, urgent. The brash, coarse optimism of post-World War II America is captured brilliantly in this production—the sense that anything is possible with the right “can-do” attitude and hard work.
This optimism is almost like a drug, obscuring the reality that not everyone can be a success or beat the system. Even if you have the goods—personal attractiveness and charisma, drive and big plans for your future—the simple fact is we all can’t have the American Dream, no matter how hard we try.
The biggest user—some might say, abuser—of this optimism drug is Willie Loman, a longtime traveling salesman living in 1949 Brooklyn with his wife Linda (Deborah Hazlett). Although gone for weeks at a time working his territory in New England, Willie’s go-getter attitude pervades every nook and cranny of the house, almost like a bullying ghost who refuses to leave. His presence is most keenly felt in his sons, Biff ( an electrifying Chris Genebach) once a high school football star and big man on campus who now wanders the West lost and untethered, and Happy (Danny Gavigan), who was also raised on his father’s hot air and hyperbole and now is a career philander who kids himself about where he is in life.
Willie believes he was doing the right thing raising up his boys to almost absurd heights and pounding into them that they are natural-born winners. The salesmanship and spiel-spinning extends to Linda too, as he exaggerates his weekly commissions and popularity with his customers.
Some of this you can forgive with Willie, since the gift of gab and the confidence that the next sale is the best sale is part and parcel of being a salesman. You have to believe to be a salesman because, as any true salesman will tell you, you are not selling goods, you are selling hope. You are selling relationships and the promise of a better life.
Willie believes this right down to the bottom of his sample cases. It’s what keeps him going all these years. The danger, however, is in overselling the dream. Willie’s obstinate loyalty—to his job, to salesmanship, to his sons—proves to be his undoing. He’s dazzled by the patter—so much so he can’t see what’s real and right in front of him.
Miller shows Willie and the other Lomans’ downward mobility and dashed dreams through the mingling of flashbacks and present reality. The thing about the flashbacks is that even though they contain ghosts (most notably, Willie’s dapper, successful older brother Ben, played with elegant distance by Carl Schurr), they are staged by Lancisi as sharp and vivid rather than ephemeral or wispy.
In this great American tragedy, Willie’s hubris is hope—something he clings to even when his world is crumbling around him. There’s something both wrenching and noble about Willie when he exclaims to Linda “Biff loves me! How about that?” moments after an excoriating showdown between father and son where Biff (Genebach rips you to shreds in this scene) breaks down in sobs in front of Willie, begging on his knees for him to see his son for who he is and to be freed of his father’s stifling dreams.
Aside from Love’s piercing Willie, Deborah Hazlett brings dignity and clear-eyed passion to the role of wife Linda and nails the “attention must be paid” speech with plainspoken conviction. As the Loman sons, Chris Genebach gives a breakthrough performance as Biff—a young man who lives unmoored and mistake-prone in his dedication not to be the hero his father thinks he is.
Really, everyone is at the top of their game, from Bruce Randolph Nelson in dual roles as Willie’s faithful friend Charley and his unfeeling new boss Howard; Beth Hylton and Megan Anderson as two giggly, crafty tootsies, Drew Kopas as the nerdy and brainy Bernard and Arturo Tolentino as a knowing waiter.
You may think the loss of the American Dream is a modern dilemma—that proud homeownership, a good job, security and upward mobility were there for the taking for our parents’ and grandparents’ generations. We mourn for that bright promise just as we mourn for Willie Loman, a nobody traveling salesman who thought he was somebody.
But Arthur Miller is there to question if the American Dream was ever valid, ever achievable for the legions of everyday schlubs just out there busting their backs and looking for a break. Is it an opportunity for all Americans or just a cruel tease?
Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller . Director: Vincent M. Lancisi . Featuring: Will Love, Deborah Hazlett, Danny Gavigan, Chris Genebach, Drew Kopas, Dawn Ursula, Bruce Randolph Nelson, Carl Schurr, Beth Hylton, Arturo Tolentino, Megan Anderson . Set Design: Daniel Ettinger . Lighting Design: Harold F. Burgess II . Costume Design: David Burdick . Sound Design: Chas Marsh . Wig Design: Denise O’Brien . Fight Choreography: Lewis Shaw . Props Master: Jillian Mathews . Dialects: Gary Logan . Dramaturgy: Johanna Gruenhut . Stage Manager: Amanda M. Hall . Assistant Stage Manager: Cat Wallis. Produced by Everyman Theatre . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.
Running in repertory with A Streetcar Named Desire though June 10 at Everyman Theatre