BWW Review: Binge-Watching DEATH OF A SALESMAN at Pittsburgh Public
I love the theatre, don't get me wrong. I'm a theatre critic; all my acting experience is onstage; everything I write, with the exception of a few abandoned experiments, has been for the stage. But if you asked me what I thought was the most vital and important artistic medium right now, I would say television without a second thought. The potential for intelligent, long-form storytelling, in which the presented work can be viewed not only as entertainment but as literature consumed by an entire population at the same time, has not been equalled since the days of serial publications. And as backwards as it may seem to say so, I can't help but think it's a shame Arthur Miller peaked in the 1940s instead of today- just imagine what Arthur Miller, writing for HBO or AMC, could have done.
Miller's Death of a Salesman, directed by Mary B. Robinson and starring Zach Grenier of The Good Wife, has the draining but decadent feel of binge-watching three straight episodes of the best prestige TV. In fact, playgoers who are television aficionados may be forced to remind themselves that Salesman was written in 1949 and not one or two years ago; the shifting timelines, unreliable narrators, hallucinatory apparitions and increasingly wounded characters doubling down on their own fatal flaws which now seem so trendy and new on television were all present onstage in Miller's famous masterwork.
Willy Loman (Grenier), in case you forgot the SparkNotes you used in Honors English class, is a traveling salesman reaching the end of his career viability around age 60. He's not handling it well: Miller's original viewers probably saw him as a man broken by the corrupt American Dream, kicked into mental and emotional submission; audiences today are more likely to see early-onset Alzheimer's or dementia. The return of his two grown sons, nymphomaniac Happy (Maxwell Eddy) and kleptomaniac Biff (Alex Mickiewicz), only accelerates Willy's downward spiral. As his long-suffering wife Linda (Kathleen McNenny) tries to hold the family together, all of the Lomans discover increasingly worsening things about each other and themselves, and wind up almost competing to see who can sink the lowest.
The show belongs, of course, to Zach Grenier, whose performance as Willy towers above everyone and everything else onstage. His portrayal of the withering salesman's downward cognitive spiral is chilling. It's almost too good, in fact- it's hard to see Willy as a victim of malevolent institutionalized greed, when he's so clearly the victim of something more insidious and natural. As he interacts with his family and the outside world, growing increasingly unhinged and powerless, our sympathy switches between him and the people who must care for (or deal with) him. This burden falls primarily on Linda, played by Kathleen McNenny with a slowly cracking stoicism. Watching her husband decline and her family collapse, she maintains a loving demeanor and stiff upper lip, until neither of those will cut it anymore.
As the two brothers, Maxwell Eddy and Alex Mickiewicz form some of the most three-dimensional characters in the entire story; unlike Willy, they have somewhere to sink to, and haven't reached rock bottom by the play's beginning. Eddy's Happy is a self-deluding, charming sociopath, lying compulsively and gleefully even when it gets in the way of his own best interest. Mickiewicz's Biff, however, knowingly and willfully steers into his own self-destruction, sabotaging his life every chance he gets to spite himself, his family and the world. As other characters struggle against the world, the nature of age, illness or poverty, Biff engages in an eternal battle against himself, and Mickiewicz's nuanced performance- especially in flashbacks to his happier glory days- comes closest to Grenier's level.
The supporting cast are a little more colorful and evocative than most productions of Salesman would permit. Tuck Milligan, as entrepreneur Ben, is mysterious almost to the point of being surreal. Straight out of a classic film serial, his Ben is less a symbol of achieving the American dream and more of a shady character; whether it's his theatrical way of talking, his evasive answers or simply the way he interacts with people, we are left with uneasy questions about just how he made all that money. Tressa Glover, as The Woman from Willy's past, flips between eroticized fantasy and messy, wounded reality when her story finally intersects with the truth. Even big-city boss Howard, as played by Joe Domencic, becomes are more nuanced figure in this production, as our sympathies shift alarmingly to him away from Willy during his one scene. If Salesman is an allegory for the plight of the working man in an increasingly mechanized capitalist state, Howard is a cruel man; if, as we see here, Willy is genuinely sick, a danger to himself and others, then Howard has already done more than enough and cannot do much more.
The design elements, especially James Noone's scenic work and Gay Kohkonen's original flute score, work wonders in crafting both the real world and the memory world of the play, making the nearly three-hour work fly by with the same paradoxically weighty ease as three hours on the couch watching the latest miserabilist premium television series. Though BoJack Horseman and Mad Men and Big Little Lies and even my personal favorite Review can mine the depths of human self-inflicted suffering, nobody does it better, with a more effective blend of poetry and prose, than Arthur Miller. The more I think, the more I realize that, no matter the medium, there is no better age to be writing for performance than this, with an entire internet's worth of commentariat gathering singularly and in groups to discuss, interpret and involve themselves.The communal aspect of attending the theatre has been mirrored in the communal aspect of shared media.
Still, there's something to be said for the power of being in one place at one time, watching one performance. As the show let out, I heard a woman weeping- no, weeping is too classy of a word, I'll say ugly-crying- near the back. She was crying so hard and so explosively that I thought she was going to overtax her stomach muscles and make herself sick, as I've seen happen to crying men and women more than once in my life. At first, I wondered what had made the play resonate so intensely with her; did she have a relative who committed suicide, or a family member with early-onset dementia? Leaving, I decided that her personal story didn't matter. Not because her suffering and personal experiences weren't valid, because they are- but because, at least in the theatre, sometimes the power of the play, and not the response it gets, can speak for itself.
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