— Death of a Salesman
DEATH OF A SALESMAN
Death of a Salesman is probably the most famous of all American plays, if not the best, so every mainstage production sets up very high expectations. This is the quintessential American Dream play after all, and Willy Loman, Arthur Miller’s mid-20th century Everyman-as-tragic-hero, is a pinnacle of a role for actors of a certain age. Director John Cooper pitches a masterly version of this masterpiece at the Playhouse, with Tom McBeath simply brilliant as the noble, pathetic salesman and Bob Frazer, as prodigal son Biff, matching him beat for devastating beat.
Because most of us remember Salesman as essentially a domestic family drama, it’s easy to forget the actual size and sweep of the play. The Playhouse production features twelve actors with nary an actorly moment among them. Standouts, besides McBeath and Frazer, are Kevin K. James as Happy, the second son, who lives in the shadow of golden boy Biff all his life (“Look Mom, look Dad, I’m losing weight!” is his refrain as his parents conspicuously ignore him—even when he tells his mother he’s getting married) and vows to carry on his father’s perverse capitalist dream at the end of the play; Eric Keenleyside as Willy’s long-suffering friend and neighbour Charlie, whose nerdy son Bernard (Daniel Arnold) will end up arguing cases before the Supreme Court; and Norman Browning as Willy’s brother Ben, who appears only in flashbacks and fantasy sequences, the vicious venture-capitalist who rather ludicrously set out for Alaska but ended up in Africa where he got rich (though we never know if this is true) discovering diamonds. Donna Belleville acquits herself very well in the play’s most difficult role, wife Linda, who stands by her man Willy to the end, reinforcing all his worst predilections. Dawn Petten as The Woman, Sean Devine as Howard, Willy’s despicable new-generation boss, and Jameson Parker as the waiter in the horrifying restaurant scene all make the most of their small but crucial roles.
Pam Johnson’s set makes the Loman house larger than I think it should be, but she also makes it look appropriately beset by the high-rise cityscape that has grown up around it, a constant reminder of Willy’s lost pastoral past. Alison Green does a nice job with the period costumes. And Gerald King’s lighting subtly but vividly marks the changes from present/reality to past/fantasy, even creating a kind of dimensionality between Willy and the house behind him when he walks out in front of the house onto the forestage. For the first time ever in watching the play (and I’ve seen many productions), I found myself seeing Willy is an expressionist figure, a real individual but at the same time a symbol of all those who fall victim to the capitalist dream they embrace. The downstage lighting and McBeath’s performance somehow transform Willy in those moments.
But it’s Willy as individualized human, especially father and (to a lesser extent) husband, whose story finally moves us. To me, the play works primarily on a father-son axis so it’s no surprise that it culminates emotionally in the confrontation between Biff and Willy and the mutual breakdown which redeems them both. McBeath and Frazer skilfully build their performances towards that extraordinarily powerful scene.
I think Cooper has Linda overplay a couple of her moments at the end after Willy has left the stage, leaving us with a slight sense of anticlimax. But these are tiny glitches in a remarkably fine production that showcases both our excellent local talent and the enduring genius of this classic play.