BWW Review: Desert Stages Theatre Presents DEATH OF A SALESMAN - A Riveting Requiem For An Ordinary Man
Is Willy Loman's suicide the first selfless act of a mediocre and self-absorbed man?
Willy Loman, defeated by his buy-in ~ hook, line, and sinker ~ to society's definition of success but never able to rise to the standard. Willy Loman, the loyal organization man but low man on the totem pole of performance, fired for falling short despite a lifetime's dedication to the firm. Willy Loman, the family man whose indiscretion courts disaster by betraying those in his orbit. Willy Loman, age 63, flailing against life's disappointments and adrift in a sea of guilt and delusion (and maybe incipient dementia), needing some conclusive act of atonement to be free and clear of it all.
It is this profile of an ordinary and flawed man that Walt Pedano portrays with flawless intensity in Virginia Olivieri's riveting production of Arthur Miller's DEATH OF A SALESMAN. Pedano's stooped figure and rasping voice bespeak a man struggling to bear the weight of a life gone awry ~ eliciting if not our sympathy at least our pity for a drowning soul.
Not for Willy do the bells of wealth and security toll ~ not compared to his well-to-do neighbor and "only friend" Charley (Al Benneian) and Charley's son Bernard (Steven Rowe). Nor for his sons, Happy (Mo Simpson), the happy-go-lucky "philandering bum," and the despondent Biff (Matthew Fields Winter), the could-have been should-have been success story, were it not for a dirty little secret that haunts him and hovers ominously over the Loman family.
Willy's world view is strikingly akin to that of Shelly Levine, another salesman, in David Mamet's play Glengarry Glen Ross: "A man is his job." Therein, in that conceit, lies another source of tension between father and son. For Biff, there has to be more in life than "the job," a premise that is at the core of his struggle to choose between home and a simpler rural life as a farmhand.
Willy's demons abound. In hallucinatory moments, Willy's older and eminently successful brother Uncle Ben (J. Kevin Tallent), the diamond tycoon, appears (clad in an all-white suit that seems cut from a Tennessee Williams play), beckoning Willy to join him in the quest for new wealth. Another vision that evaporates with Willy's dreams.
It is to Linda (Donna Kaufman), the dutiful and submissive family matriarch, that the onus of keeping the family together falls. Kaufman's adoring glances and futile efforts to comfort an uneasy Willy are never reciprocated in kind. She is the referee in the crackling interactions between father and sons. Ever frugal, she darns her stockings, while Willy, in a flashback, is revealed for his transgression, awarding a one-night stand (Bonnie Piper) with a box of new nylons. Kaufman's performance as the stolid spouse stays constant until she explodes in a gut-wrenching wail over Willy's grave. Kaufman's final words to Willy are delivered with a passion and intensity that moves one to tears.
In a play that could easily have been titled requiem for a lightweight, the Loman family is stuck in the funk of the unfulfilled American dream, where Willy's demons prevail and taint what might otherwise be the all-American family.
It is not capitalism that undoes Willy. As the play's arc moves irrevocably towards tragedy, it is Willy's great expectations, fueled by the seductive lure of the Horatio Alger myth, that bring him down. So it is that Willy Loman is not a heroic figure but merely, as Pedano so effectively reveals, a quite recognizable man among men whose reach couldn't go far enough. The pathos here is palpable thanks to Pedano's vivid performance. And, given his portrayal, the verdict must be that "Attention must be made to such a person!"
Director Olivieri controls the arc and tone of Miller's script with fidelity, carefully building this American tragedy towards its emotion-laden finale. Her work is an impressive piece of business.
DEATH OF A SALESMAN, the winner of the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play, runs through April 14th at Desert Stages Theatre in Scottsdale, AZ.
Photo credit to Paige Corbin