BWW Review: APT'S DEATH OF A SALESMAN Foreshadows Demise of the American Dream
Arthur Miller's 1949 Pulitzer Prize winning play Death of a Salesman might be considered by critics the most influential play of the 20th century. American Players Theatre presents a visceral, gut-wrenching production at the Up The Hill Theatre, the scenery drenched in depression glass green.: A green bedspread on a tarnished brass bed, a green ice box stands behind a humble green table and four chairs. Envisioned by Scenic Designer Michael Ganio, did he and veteran Director Kenneth Albers begin to infer from the moment the audience enters the amphitheater that Willy Loman suffers from depression, was green with envy for his his brother Ben and friend Charley? Or did this particular hue represent the institutional green characterizing hospitals and mental asylums in the '40's and '50's and symbolize the breakdown between a person's memory and reality that Willy and his family struggle with?
The overwhelming weathered green hue subtly changes through Lighting Designer Michael A.Peterson's craft. However, one notices. Does this color premonition foreshadow the tragic events about to unfold over the three hours when the play opens? Willy Loman, a 63 year old salesman, finds himself tired and weary, living paycheck to paycheck, with no savings for a comfortable retirement while he and his wife Linda are one payment away from paying off their 25 year old mortgage on their house, finishing a monthly payment on a no brand name ice box, and paying off a broken down Chevrolet. Their sons, BIff and Happy, aka Harold, return home without a college education or future plans. Willy believes, "He's worth more dead than alive."
Perhaps this sounds vaguely familiar in 2016. People are waiting "to retire" until 70 years old because they have little saved for the future. Car payments now last 60 or 72 months long, only to be owned after the car reaches well over a 100,000 miles. Older children and students return home to live with "mom and pop," because they are unable or find jobs above the minimum wage, or so strapped with college debt that the young people have become unable to support themselves and afford apartments. Even health care carries sky high deductibles so many families are unable to go to the dentist or doctor--barely surviving in a world where technology offered an supposedly easier life ahead when first invented.
Was Arthur Miller a literary prophet? Miller and APT'S Brian Mani embodies Willy Loman and carries the weight of these social dilemmas on his shoulders, similar to his wife Linda, another APT talent Tracy Michelle Arnold. Mani vacillates between dreams and reality while the audience moves with Mani through each memory. Albers releases Willy' s memories from the amphitheater's stairs, when Willy's brothers Ben, actor John Pribyl, enters from the last row in the theater, clicking his walking cane on the steps, similar to timing minutes on a clock, as if time waits for no man. Seamlessly, Mani's Willy transitions between the past and present, memories and reality, while the cast exits and enters flawlessly in various costumes maintaining the production's nuanced pace, throughout the performance.
Arnold's Linda reacts with shy, retiring patience, until she can no longer contain her emotions for her sons' behavior, Biff and Hap, the two brothers played by Marcus Truschinski and Casey Hoekstra--Gifted actors who create their own interpretation of these iconic characters. In a fascinating casting, African American actors play Charley and his son, Bernard, Johnny Lee Davenport and Sylvester Little, Jr., respectively. The Brooklyn born "whites," the Lomans, admire the work ethic of the African-Americans. Even with color blind casting, this turns Miller's American Dream into a dream of an ethnically diverse country in the 21st century.
Sarah Day become the "other woman" in Willy's life, making her minutes on stage count--And Willy's boss Howard, Bobby Bowman, foretells the future again by showing Willy his "new recording machine, " a tape recorder. A machine Howard states, "You don't have to be home to listen to the Jack Benny show. You record the show and listen anytime you want"--- new technology. In 1949, technology was already redefining life. Perhaps even Miller might be surprised how accurate he was. In 2016, no one needs to be home to record their favorite TV show, pre-programmable, or they can stream films and television to their Ipad or computers. Even past music concepts appear on You Tube. Does anyone need to be personally present, in real time, anywhere in this decade except when looking at their smart phone?
Albers presents Death of a Salesman in a emotional space where people scream, and cling to each other, crying real tears. Men cry, men scream, men lay prostrate on the floor, argue with their parents. Boys think they can "have any women they want," more accessible than ever on websites such as Tinder and OKCupidl. Linda rages that the boys care so little for their father, so these front and center emotions act as the driving force between a family lost in their reality of living paycheck to paycheck, Willy too proud to accept a paying job from his friend Charley.
Sitting in the audience opening night, current business and social news reflect on Miller's renowned play. How many people live in the cycle of debt, including the country, to attain consumer goods less reliable or well made than in 1949? Do people actually need "salesmen" anymore when retail in America understands this institution might be dying? The salesman has almost been eliminated, samples and wares available over email, smart phones, and iPads with the click of a button from Amazon or online. Another click offers an electronic money transfer from bank to merchant in a blink of the eye. Does personality and being "well liked"
as Willy believed have any effect in 2016?
One recent economic study by a Nobel Prize winner from October 2015 determined people from ages 25 to 35 are dying at an unprecedented rate, their life expectancy decreasing for the first time in years because of prescription drug overdoes, alcoholism, and suicides. The largest income discrepancies between the rich, such as Willy's brother Ben, and the middle class, hard working and loyal employees similar to Willy, exist more today than any other time iin history. Did Arthur Miller actuarially foreshadow the demise of of the American Dream?
If one dares, ponder life in America, 1949, and see the similarities to America, 2016. APT presents a profound, powerful Death of a Salesman that reinforces what Miller uncovered a half a century ago. What will remain memory and then as reality from today when the future stretches out before the country and for those sitting in the audiences this summer? Has the death of the American dream begun?
Or will the country redefine what the American Dream holds for all who live here, regardless of their ethnicity or culture. so hope survives? Without hope and confidence in the future, people might agree with Willy Loman--perhaps they already have. Miller's play revisits these critical questions for America, perhaps more relevant this summer than in 1949, and only the audience can provide the answers to Willy's and his family's dilemmas.
American Players Theatre presents Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman through the summer season. For information on special events, performance schedule or tickets to the performance, please call: 608.588.2361 or visit: www.americanplayerstheatre.org.