"I feel kind of ... temporary ... about myself," says the salesman, and in that one line a whole world of disappointment and disillusion is laid achingly bare. Of coure, since this is an Arthur Miller play, there are close to three more hours of lines around it, many of them fairly repetitive to modern ears. But this was how they rolled, back in the '40s. Miller and McCullers, O'Neill and Williams, the playwrights who created a theater where, in Ivor Brown's words, "it is the clerk, not the king, who inspires the tragedian," where ordinary lives became important and depth of feeling replaced intricate plotting.
Miller's stage was daringly bare and abstract for the time, with living spaces blending into each other without walls; he was attempting to replicate the experience of reading a novel. It's an experience director Sue Trigg recreates nicely in Altarena Playhouse's current production. Wisely, she's chosen not to change or update it, other than some little things cut here and there to speed things up. While the themes are timeless, Death of a Salesman makes more sense set in its original context, that of a time when being in sales was regarded with much more suspicion and disdain than it is now, and when it was harder for fathers and sons to be open and truthful with one another.
Willy Loman (a lively, pugnacious Chris Chapman) has tried to be well-liked all his life. "Be liked," he tells his sons Biff and Hap, "and you'll never want." But inside he suspects that people are really mocking him. He tells his wife Linda that he once punched a man he thought had called him a walrus. Plagued by lonelieness, he compensates with false bonhomie, a mercurial temper, and shallow infidelities. He's also getting old, and tired; driving back and forth with his sample cases is wearing him out. We never learn what exactly is in those cases, perhaps because it's as inconsequential as he suspects his own life to be.
The best thing in his life is his oldest son, Biff, "built like an Adonis" and sure to succeed, once he can just settle down and put his talents to something. Never mind that Biff peaked in high school and has been drifting since; never mind that younger son Hap is actually having some small measure of his own success. The lies Willy tells himself about his family are so deeply ingrained that everyone else plays along or resists, creating a triangular dynamic between Willy, Linda, and Biff, with all the other characters lining up along one axis or another.
Which makes casting these three characters critical. Elinor Bell's Linda is the real standout, flinty and loving by turns. Her journey from conciliatory doormat to implacable nostrils-flaring force of nature is a powerful one. Chris Ratti's Biff is much more convincing when he drops the Brooklynesque accent, especially since nobody else in the cast is using one. But there are some small, delicate moments that Ratti gets beautifully, such as his ill-concealed disdain for his brother's lying and womanizing, or the moment when he refers to his father as a prince. Biff is an interesting character, and ultimately the one with the hardest journey of the group. In Ratti's hands we watch him go from spoiled kid to haunted man, and see how far he falls not only from his father's dreams, but also from his own.
David Koppel's Hap isn't as convincing. Miller was fascinated with brotherhood compare Salesman to the earlier All My Sons or the much-later The Price, where two brothers negotiate the disposal of their father's things. Tension within families especially between brothers is a recurring theme. But we don't see it here, though it's in the text. Biff is the golden boy, the would-be sports hero, the more beloved of the two, but it's Hap who can afford an apartment, a car, "plenty of women," and Hap who is doing a better job of living out their father's dream. Koppel is working the slightly sleazy angle of adult Hap to the exclusion of the Hap-Biff rivalry, which is a little disappointing. But he's not overplaying the role nearly as much as Eric O'Kelly as a jarringly whiny Bernard, or some of the young women Miller put in as placeholders. Stephen Steiner does a nice job with Charley, both sympathetic and impatient.
Part of the challenge of doing this play 57 years after it was first staged and purists will want to shoot me is that what may have been subtle in 1949 isn't anymore. Miller says more than he needs to get the point across, the last scene being a stellar example. Other than Linda falling to the grave and moaning about having finally made the last mortgage payment ("we're free and clear,") there's a lot of Biff talking about how Willy dreamed badly, belaboring a point that was made quite firmly early on. There's also the Miller-mandated use of a flute to indicate Willy's shifts into reminiscence. Even when executed well (as it is here by Cathy Yang), the flute music becomes over-the-top and a bit creepy.
But it's solid work from a largely amateur cast, who get a couple of the most important things right. They work the language without it seeming dated, and their characters lie effortlessly, which is important. The web of lies is breathtakingly complex, yet the cast makes clear why each lie is needful: love, and a desire to protect the beloved. Sure, Salesman can be read as a scathing indictment of capital, and of how a man indeed, a whole family can get sucked into the gears. Miller was political, it's an easy place to go. But it's subtler than that, which this production shows powerfully with the sight of a man admitting that he feels not just "temporary," but obsolete.
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