Arthur Miller took a scalpel to the American Dream with his iconic 1949 play Death of a Salesman.
Seeing the production anew grants the show a deeper relevance, even if the liberal playwright couldn’t predict what five years of an Obama administration might do to the U.S. economy.
The story is, of course, now part of theater’s proud creative canvas. An old salesman (Mike Hartman, superb as Willy Loman) is desperate to quit the road when his health–and state of mind–start to fray. Enter Willy’s two adult sons, suddenly living at home again and unable to detach themselves from their dad’s delusions.
Adult children living at home? Did Miller envision the impact of Obamacare?
Biff (John Patrick Hayden) has returned from the west without a real plan of action. Happy (M. Scott McLean) is the most successful of the Loman men, but he longs to see both his father and Biff live up to their lofty ideals. The clan’s matriarch (Lauren Klein, Hartman’s wife off-stage) tries to keep peace within the family, but old resentments refuse to fade away.
Meanwhile, reality is never far from the edge of the spare stage, something the three men continue to ignore at all emotional costs.
The production, stellar in every way that matters, teems with antiquated references. Consider that gadget that miraculously records a person’s voice, or the notion that our salesman can survive on $50 a week. It’s timeless all the same, the characters’ sense of denial particularly relevant in an age when dismissed American Idol contestants insist they can carry a tune. Even Willy’s boss, a man who assumes everyone can afford a maid, epitomizes the chasm between the social classes today.
Salesman keeps certain details private. Just what does Willy sell for a living? Did he ever really rank as a stellar salesman, or is every talking point he utters just one more lie? Those mysteries pile up during the three-hour production, letting audiences fill in enough blanks to make the story matter in 2013.
The play’s new tragic through line is one Miller might glumly applaud had he lived to see it. The ranks of the unemployed continue to swell while their job options keep shrinking. That reality grants this tragic tale a fresh layer of sadness.
Photo credit: Jennifer Koskinen