Many of the greatest American dramas are about families: the Tyrones in "Long Day’s Journey into Night," the Wingfields in "Glass Menagerie" and the Youngers in "A Raisin in the Sun."
But none of them match the painful and precise look into the complexities of the Loman family at the heart of "Death of a Salesman," Arthur Miller’s greatest play receiving a spectacular and blistering treatment at American Players Theater in Spring Green. There are many who claim this is the greatest of all American plays, and after seeing this production, it would be difficult to argue.
"Salesman" is a smart play that is frequently produced with an eye toward getting an audience to understand the four family members, with some memorable productions as a result. The thought clearly is often that it's necessary to get this family before you can have sympathy for them.
Here, director Kenneth Albers has wisely decided to tug at the heart and fall for these people without having to sort things out in your mind. This is a performance designed to make us feel for these people. These Lomans don’t demand intellectual curiosity but, rather, emotional investment. Never have I felt the level of sadness that I felt opening night, not just for the hero, Willy Loman, but for his wife Linda and sons, Biff and Happy.
The horrifying disintegration of this family is not easily explained. The "what" comes easily, but the "why" is a road of hairpin turns, slippery slopes and glazed roadways sliding off into ditches of doom.
The essence of the story is the tale of lies and delusions we all tell to other people and, more damaging, to ourselves. When we believe the lies we are told, we stand on shaky ground. When we believe the lies we tell, the ground moves in tremors.
And when those lies become delusions, we stand alone on an island of hopelessness and fear.
Willy Loman (Brian Mani) is a 64-year-old traveling salesman whose life has wound down to a point where he has given up. No sales, no job and no money, and his heart has been irretrievably broken.
He is dancing with death – by his own hand – while all around him, his world and his family are stuck in the muds of their own lives.
Biff (Marcus Truchinski), the eldest son, is a former high school football star to whom Willy pasted all of his hopes and dreams. And Biff loved his dad; worshiped may be a better word. He was the embodiment of the saying, "Your future's so bright, you need shades."
Yet one fateful day, Biff flunked a math course, was denied graduation, traveled to Boston to find his dad for help and discovered his father in a seedy room with a woman who was not his wife or Biff’s mother.
In the span of only a few hours, two lives were shattered, and the pieces would never be glued back together.
The matriarch of this family, a splendid Tracy Michelle Arnold, is oft drawn as a spindly mat in front of the door into Willy’s life. But Arnold give us a Linda who is a protector and a cheering coach, trying to love everything her team does. When there is a momentary peace in this household, no matter how fragile or disingenuous, her smile is a bliss she thinks she owns, not realizing it is only rented.
Arnold's Linda lives a life continually on the edge of her seat, waiting for the juggling balls of her life to fall. Keeping those balls in the air becomes the overriding purpose of her life even though she understands that it's not in her power to do so.
And finally, there is Hap (Casey Hoekstra), the youngest son and the one who, more than anyone, sees what’s happening to this poor family. He’s driven to help create a family worthy of the word and spins fanciful tales of business success and impending marriage to draw attention to himself in the hopes that the focus will shine its light on him, rather than the other troubles parading through the modest home.
There is nothing in the world quite so beautiful as the confluence of great material and great performance, and that is what the audience got under a star-filled sky on opening night. Live theater is always a kind of magic, but on occasion, it becomes a supernatural experience. Such is this "Salesman."
The four actors, as well as the supporting cast, created a magic that filled the rustic forest enclave. The designers and specialists, especially John Tanner who designed a panorama of sound that painted a picture more vivid than any color palate could do, also rose to the the play's challenge.
It was fitting that opening night took place on the eve of Father’s Day. Mani and Truchinski were towering in their relationship and went to emotional depths rarely seen in this play.
When Albers sat for the first read through of this American gem, he set off on a journey particularly suited to APT and one that lures all hearts to ride along.
Death of a Salesman continues in repertory and information on showtimes and tickets is available here.
Production Credits: Kenneth Albers, Director; Eva Breneman, Voice and Text Coach; Michael Ganio, Scenic Design; Devon Painter, Costume design; Michael A. Peterson, Lighting Design; John Tanner, Original Music & Sound Design; David Daniel, Fight Director; Sarah Deming-Henes, Stage Manager.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
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