There are hardly any traveling salesmen now, and yet we are almost all Willy Loman. We remember the home run we hit to win the big game in high school, when in fact we rode the bench at P.S. 89, and the big hit was in a sandlot pick-up game. We imagine that our diligence and smarts have put us on the partner track, when in our heart of hearts we know we will eventually work for an insurance company as assistant in-house counsel. We puff up our past and our present in order to imagine a glorious future just around the corner, when in fact it is not even around the world.
Willy is us writ large, which is why Death of a Salesman remains as fresh and relevant as anything from Guirgis or Gunderson despite its grounding in the now-distant past. Willy is a legend in his own mind; and his children, following his example and his teachings, are legends in their own minds too. America is a nation of salesmen, and the thing we sell most persistently is ourselves.
A play with such bedrock truths in it must be approached with respect and imagination. Ford’s Theatre, in Stephen Rayne’s fine production, does both. Perhaps the most respectful element of the production is its colorblind casting. Willy, his brother Ben, and his boss, Howard, are all played by African-American actors; others in the cast, including the actors playing Willy’s two sons, are Caucasian. August Wilson pointed out — and not subtly — how absurd that would have been in 1948, when the play was set, but Death of a Salesman is not about drummers in the years following the war. It’s about self-delusion, which is part of the continuing American and human drama.
As for imagination, the most striking thing in the Ford’s production is the assertiveness of Willy’s wife, Linda. In most of the versions of Salesman I’ve seen, Linda is cowed by Willy’s occasional spluttering, befuddled rage, and though she howls against her sons for their mistreatment of him, she carries her victimhood with her. But Kimberly Schraf’s Linda sails through Willy’s bluster undeterred. Sweet, unruffled and calm, she steers Willy where she wants him to go when the storm clouds finally pass. With sons Biff (Thomas Keegan) and Hap (Danny Gavigan) it is a different story. Her anger with them is pure and venomous; she is not to be pushed around; nor to be pitied. Ironically, it is in her devotion to Willy that she facilitates his self-delusion, and prolongs the family’s separation from truth.
You probably know this story, but let me describe it for the benefit of your grandchildren who may not. Death of a Salesman is the last Act in the life of Willy Loman (Craig Wallace), who has for many years sold a product — never described — for an unnamed New York company in New England. In his salad days he had some level of success, although it is uncertain how much (when he tells his boss he made the princely sum of $170 per week in 1928, his boss says softly, “you never did.”) But as the play opens he is, at 63, a broken man, hammered by the incessant noise of New York and his life (John Gromada’s sound design is brilliant), reduced to working on commission and no longer able to force himself to drive beyond Yonkers.
His professional disintegration is matched by a personal one; his son Biff, who held such promise in his eyes, has drifted from job to job and now, at 34, works as a cattle ranch hand in Texas, for peanuts. Hap, his other son, has stayed in New York and professes to chase after the American dream but in fact only chases after available women — in part to satisfy his lust and in part, he confesses, to despoil them for their boyfriends, who all hold the executive positions which he thinks should be his.
Biff is back in town and staying, along with Hap, in the parents’ home, surrounded as it is by oppressively tall, and close, apartment buildings. (Tim Mackabee’s set cleverly invokes the surroundings by hanging dozens of windows, against a background the color of dried blood, from floor to ceiling, and raising and lowering a luminous small house at the center of the stage). Willy thus has his past thrust into his present, with all of his failures ready to roost on his heart. He is not handling it well.
Time, for Willy, bleeds into itself. He is in 1948 Brooklyn, trying to come to a reckoning with himself and his son, but he is also in a Brooklyn twenty years ago, when Biff was a hero high school quarterback about to lead his team into the City Championship at Ebbets Field. This is a powerful Willy, barking commands to his sons, who treat him like a god. He shares his son’s sneers at the nerdy neighbor kid Bernard (Brandon McCoy), who is “liked but not well liked”, and at Bernard’s dad Charlie (Michael Russoto), who Willy derides because he doesn’t know sports and can’t build anything by himself. Powerful Willy believes that the world belongs to him and his sons because of the force of their personality; creatures like Bernard bring only their skill and knowledge to the table.
Back in the present, the family hits upon a pair of schemes to redeem themselves and reignite the fantasies which sustained them through so much of their lives together. Willy will meet with his boss, Howard (KenYatta Rogers) and demand that he be given a territory in New York City; Biff will meet with an old employer, Bill Oliver, and convince him to stake Biff in a new sporting-goods enterprise with his brother, Hap. And Hap will treat them all to lobsters at an excellent bistro.
But this is not fantasyland. It is a much harder place, where Willy must depend on Charley’s generosity to get by, and Bernard is preparing to argue before the Supreme Court. You can imagine what happens to the Lomens’ plans.
Wallace is a powerful actor, capable of bathing the stage in swagger and menace, but he brings a surprising amount of vulnerability to his portrayal of Willy. His Willy is a dramatic version of the comic character Jackie Gleason created for The Honeymooners; his bluster somehow makes him more endearing to us. Of course, Willy is in danger of death from the first moment of the play, as Ralph Kramden never was, but — aided by Schraf’s dead-on timing as Linda — he consistently lets the air out of his bluster at exactly the right moment. There are a surprising number of moments during this powerful drama where the audience bursts out into startled laughter.
Death of a Salesman
closes October 22, 2017
Details and tickets
Wallace and Schraf get strong help from a strong cast. Biff is the only character who really changes from the play’s start to its finish, as he comes to grips with who he is. Keegan plays him as a man who is constantly trying to outrun his own skin, and so makes his resolution both convincing and satisfying. Gavigan, who also played Hap in Everyman’s recent production, gives us a real rotter in this production; a human sneer of a man who means to uphold the family tradition of boosterism and self-delusion — not out of ambition, but out of anger, spite and envy. When he attempts to placate his mother after the final, horrible night by giving her a handful of daffodils, we know that this is a man who values himself too highly, and others not at all.
While the large cast as a whole is very good (and a reminder that, in 1949, you could have a non-musical with fourteen characters) I am compelled to take special note of Frederick Strother, who plays Willy’s recently-dead brother Ben. Our obligation to the truth is Arthur Miller’s primary theme in this play, but he invokes all of his other themes in scenes between Willy and Ben, an adventurer who made himself rich in Africa and Alaska. It is with Ben that we learn of their father, who in 1889 took them from Massachusetts to South Dakota in a covered wagon, carving and selling wood flutes along the way for the family’s sustenance, and then disappeared. It is Ben who invites Willy to join him and make his fortune in Alaska — an invitation Willy refuses, as it would involve abandoning his fantasy that he is a successful salesman in New York. And it is Ben who advises Willy in his final dilemma. Through Ben we see the American risk-taker and entrepreneur; through Willy, we see the American dreamer, who fantasizes about the success his brother achieved. Because Ben is Willy’s imagined character throughout, he must remain emotionally just out of reach, and Strother, resplendent in his three-piece suit (Wade Laboissonniere’s costumes are spot-on), is.
Death of a Salesman is arguably the best American play of the twentieth century, but to keep it meaningful as it recedes in time, companies and directors must find the universal within it, and emphasize it at the expense of the particular. I am pleased to say that Rayne and Ford’s have done so. Long live Death of a Salesman!
Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller, directed by Stephen Rayne, with Kristen Fox-Siegmund serving as deputy director and director of programming, featuring Craig Wallace, Kimberly Schraf, Danny Gavigan, Thomas Keegan, Brandon McCoy, Jennifer Gerdts, Michael Russotto, Frederick Strother, KenYatta Rogers, Aakhu TuahNera Freeman, Joe Mallon, Kathryn Tkel, Lynette Rathnam and Nora Achrati. Scenic design: Tim Mackabee . Costume design: Wade Laboissonniere . Lighting design: Pat Collins . Sound design and original music: John Gromada . Hair and make-up design: Anne Nesmith . Dialects and voice director: Lynn Watson . Stage manager Brandon Prendergast, assisted by Julia Singer . Produced by Ford’s Theatre . Reviewed by Tim Treanor