BWW: Review: Everyman Makes What Can Be Made of Miller's SALESMAN
When a critic talks about a classic like Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, now in revival at Everyman Theatre, there is no need to worry about spoiler alerts. Even if this were not one of the most familiar plays in the canon, known to almost every theatergoer, the title sort of spills the beans. So I'm going to proceed on the assumption that the plot needs no introduction and is fair game for discussion in some detail.
And I want to get right down to that detail. The play asks us to consider three instances of failure in a single family: the breadwinner's career, the family's pursuit of the American Dream, and that family's nurturing of its two sons. With respect to the first two kinds of failure at least, Miller leaves out some utterly critical plot information, so we cannot know how much to generalize from what we are witnessing.
Career first. Is Willy Loman (Wil Love) the primary author of his own misfortune or does that honor belong to economic circumstances? We know that salesman Willy has gaping holes in his integrity. He cheats on his wife, he encourages his sons to steal, he cannot accept help from a friend when that would be the sensible and indeed virtuous thing to do. His salesmanship, to the extent we can glimpse it, seems to consist of attempting to capitalize on personal relationships that are founded on nothing more substantial than the impression given by a shoeshine - rather than resting on the merits of the unnamed product he sells or the attractiveness of the deals he offers customers. We also know that his career is failing, badly. But what does the one fact have to do with the other? We don't know. We certainly never see him either making or blowing a sale because of any dishonesty.
And if Miller thinks it's irrelevant to the audience what Willy is selling, Miller could not be more mistaken. If, in 1949, the year of the first production of the play, Willy is peddling buggy whips, it's very different than if he's selling something 1949 consumers demanded. We do know that in 1949, the world of traveling salesmen was constricting greatly. As Jack Viertel commented in this year's book, The Secret Life of the American Musical, the audience of The Music Man (which came out only 13 years later than Salesman) was invited to consider traveling salesmen as a quaint piece of bygone Americana, with an emphasis on the bygone. (Not to suggest that there aren't still traveling salesmen today in some markets.).
It would be very helpful to get a clearer read on this, because without it we cannot get a handle on Miller's message as to the American Dream either. That Dream is, of course, the notion that by dint of hard work and inspiration one can achieve wealth and status, and make life better for one's children. But there has always been a caveat attached to that dream, which is that the hard work and inspiration must be in a marketable field. If Willy's line of work is collapsing, if he actually is selling buggy whips, then it's his lack of insight or willingness to face up to economic realities that has foiled him, and not the failure of the American Dream. On the other hand, maybe his customers just don't want to deal with someone as unprincipled as Willy. Which is it? We are starved of the information that would enable us to know for sure.
There are some suggestions that it might have worked out better had he been a better person. Willy's neighbor Charley and Charley's son Bernard (Bruce Randolph Nelson and Drew Kopas) are a virtuous family, and they are clearly getting ahead (what with Bernard headed off to argue a case in the Supreme Court). But are they getting ahead because they're a virtuous family? It's also arguable that Willy's bad luck in being too tired to go on and being booted by his callous boss Howard (also Bruce Randolph Nelson) could just as easily have happened to Charley if Charley had been in Willy's line of work and worked for Willy's employer.
So we don't know (because in this long and windy play, Miller has still failed in meeting his basic narrative obligations) what lessons we are supposed to draw from the fable of Willy Loman on the subjects of character, success, or the American Dream. What about the lessons in the other area the play focuses on, the family?
This is the one area in which it can be confidently said that Loman's failures are his own fault. The guidance and care he has given his two sons Biff (Chris Genebach) and Happy (Danny Gavigan) has been comprehensively wrong, and he must own in large measure the emptiness and the lack of success his sons have achieved throughout most of the play. But the "last act," the funeral after Willy has taken his life, shows the family's healing, and for that Willy also surprisingly deserves credit. His act of suicide is brave and loving and well-thought-through, calculated to bring about the good results it ensures. There is every reason to believe that the family's failures are at an end, and that, based on a climactic final confrontation with Biff, Loman foresaw how and why his death would end them. (And of course, just to add a fillip to the an earlier-discussed theme the greater success of the next generation is part of the American Dream.)
Indeed, if there is a reason that, despite all the confusion just catalogued, the play continues to have a grip on us, it is precisely that in this one element, the family drama, we witness comparative thematic clarity and enjoy a somewhat paradoxical happy ending. Naturally, one can say that the impact of a continually changing and largely heartless economy is a perennial theme, and ditto the unfulfilled American Dream. But there is so much uncertainty surrounding the presentation of those themes in Salesman that it is possible to say with confidence that if the play were just about them and not the family, it would be a seldom-produced historically interesting "issues play," like for instance Elmer Rice's The Adding Machine, and not a classic.
Still, this unresolvedness of the two social themes is a feature, not a bug, as far as Miller is concerned. And this places unusual limits on a company producing the play. There is very little a director and actors can do. Miller has perversely willed the ambiguities and the gaps in information, and he has tightly controlled the opportunities for interpretation that might resolve or suggest resolutions to the ambiguities. There is a path to execute, and the Everyman crew execute marvelously, but this is not the same thing as the artistry that directors and actors can ordinarily exert. Most plays give their performers more room to interpret, to breathe.
The only leeway Miller allows the director and performers is in the degree of histrionics with which they say his lines. And here we can tip the hat to director Vincent Lancisi and the Everyman cast, particularly the leads (pictured above) Wil Love and Deborah Hazlett (as Willy's wife Linda) . It is a compliment in Love's case to say that he has not matured in his craft since this reviewer first saw him back at Center Stage in the early 1970s, because he has always known just what to do. The role of Willy, adrift in time, sometimes reliving moments that had happened decades ago, veering between bravado and frank admissions of failure, between rage and mute seeking of forgiveness, may not leave room for interpretation, but still requires a deft touch, and Love always delivers it. Hazlett's is a more conventional role, that of a wife who loves and therefore forgives everything, but again, over several decades and in a variety of circumstances. Even when pestering Willy about the money necessary to run the household, she must not be querulous or unsympathetic. The burden of the all-important funeral scene which nails down both the tragedy and the triumph in the family drama rests on her, and Hazlett has done a fine job in conveying the necessary dignity to make it work.
There is an additional reason to see this production. This Salesman is being performed in rotating repertory with a revival of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, which premieres next week with almost the same cast. This is a way many American theatergoers in earlier eras got to experience theater, with troupes who presented shows in groups, rather than sequential seasons, and I have always mourned the loss of that kind of experience. It is exciting that Everyman is bringing it back, if only as a kind of one-off stunt (so far as we know). It should be even more exciting because these two classics have so much in common, so many themes that resonate with each other. I'll be back in a week's time to discuss the second show and that resonance.
Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller, directed by Vincent M. Lancisi, through June 12, at Everyman Theatre, 315 W. Fayette Street, Baltimore, MD 21201. Tickets $10-$60, 410-752-2208, www.everymantheatre.org . Presented in repertory with A Streetcar Named Desire, by Tennessee Williams. Mild violence, adult situations, threatened and actual suicide, smoking.
Photo credit: ClintonBPhotography