Test of Time
Perhaps the ultimate measure of a thing's success is time. Does it--do we?--stand its test? For Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Arthur Miller, it's a test he's passed with flying colors as even 60 years after his play, Death of Salesman, first premiered, it continues to be performed before full houses. Unfortunately, the same glowing report cannot be made of the characters in the play itself, first and foremost, protagonist Willy Loman.
Ironically enough, a man who is ultimately consumed by the vestiges of time was clearly ahead of his. With his "Be well liked, and you'll never want" philosophy, Willy would seem better suited to our current age where people are famous for being famous, lauded for their "personality," "Adonis" good looks and "initiative" which occasionally careens into unethical if not criminal acts. Perhaps if poor Willy were around today, he'd be hosting his own reality TV show, with his "god-like" sons, Biff and Hap, as merry co-hosts.
Then again, perhaps they'd all be FOX NEWS pundits for, as Biff relates late in the play, no one in the Loman family has ever bothered to tell the full, unadulterated truth in their entire lives.
Death of a Salesman debuted in 1949 so one must be cognizant of the era in which it was written. Willy is said to be 62; not that old by today's standards, but a dinosaur at that time, when a man's life expectancy was only 68. When you're "riding on a smile and shoe shine" as Willy's singular friend, Charley (Michael O'Connell) observes, it's hard to make friends and influence people when your smile might be with false teeth, your shoes yesterday's fashion. In his outdated suit and tie and cranky Studebaker, it's no wonder Willy feels people aren't laughing with him anymore, but at him.
Death of a Salesman is a modern Shakespearean tragedy with Willy a cross between King Lear and Falstaff. A man held aloft by titanic aspirations, dragged down by the smallness and cruelty of his own reality, he's going mad (very much the Bard); Willy (Tony Colavito) moves between his past and his present while all those around him, unaware of the memories playing in his head, display emotions ranging from embarrassment to disdain to horror to pity. It's a monumental role and Mr. Colavito is up to the challenge, making Willy a character one likes, dislikes, admires and grieves, all at the same time. He is, as long-suffering-and-supporting wife Linda (Helenmary Ball) observes, one to whom "attention must be paid."
Ball does a masterful job in making the character of Linda much more than just a "good wife"--she is, in fact, the wisest of the Loman clan for she is, as we learn, far more aware of what's happening to her husband than her supposedly more worldly sons would guess. When she takes her 30something "boys" to task over their maltreatment of Willy, she is a more commanding presence sitting in her bathrobe at the Loman kitchen table than a medal-bedecked General Patton standing tall before his troops. Gregory Beck Jericho's Biff suffers the fate of a child who learns, in shocking fashion, that his father is not the god he thought him to be. Jericho is able to transform from disillusioned middle-aged man to teenage football hero and back again with simple body movements, his head jutting forward, body ducking and weaving about as the high school athlete, then head downcast, shoulders turned inward as though tired and strained from propping up unrealized hopes for too many years.
Christopher Kryszotfiak is extremely well cast as the ever grinning "Hap" Happy Loman, content at this point in his life to swim in the soothing waters of denial, a "I'm gettin' married, Pop!" on his lips one moment, then chasing the nearest available skirt the next. The rest of the cast is well turned with Richard Peck as Ben, the patronly ghost to Willy's Hamlet--he appears only as a memory, delivering cryptic advice with the tap of a walking stick and an air of success that leaves Willy in eternal wonder; Michael O'Connell as Charley, who plays the difficult role of a man Willy deemed below him but ultimately rises above, much as his son, Bernard (Michael B. Zemarel), whom Willy once called "a worm," grows to Supreme (Court) heights while Willy's Biff vainly searches for that "big million dollar deal."
As my theater companion noted, perhaps patrons should be offered complimentary Prozac when it comes to viewing an Arthur Miller play; watching the devolution of people's lives, the destruction of hopes, the falling of family idols, the betrayal of unfeeling bosses--it's not exactly fun, but it is indeed riveting, emotionally powerful, thought-provoking drama.
The Vagabond Players production of Death of a Salesman is expertly crafted by a wonderful ensemble of actors; the set, costumes, lighting and direction, are all in tune to create just the right post-World War II atmosphere, of a small home in Brooklyn, plain, stark, too small for a backyard garden and not big enough to contain the characters' dreams.
Directed by Michael B. Zemeral, Death of a Salesman continues its run at the Vagabond, 806 S. Broadway in Fells Point, now through March 27th. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets are $15; $13 for seniors and students with a special $10 Student Night on Fridays. Call 410-563-9135 or visit online at www.vagabondplayers.org.