Arena Creates Sadly Satisfying Portrait of Arthur Miller’s’Salesman’
A good production of an Arthur Miller play will send audiences into the night with their neck hairs standing on end and their minds seriously questioning the meaning — and futility —of life. That being said, ushers working Arena Stage’s current production of “Death of a Salesman” should seat their patrons with large dosages of Prozac.
This is quite a compliment, however.
The tragic story of Willy Loman — i.e., the comprehensive American dream gone awry — fluctuates between the salesman’s actual economic and emotional demise and his haunting memories and visions. This combination of the real with the surreal slowly melts away Willy’s sanity, preventing him from picking himself up by his bootstraps and moving forward.
Like Miller, who was intrepid in his quest to expose man’s collective worst fears come true, the boldness of this production turns pathos into a work of art.
To risk the depression-induced effect of a Miller play, however, there must be some payoffs besides witnessing the playwright’s sheer brilliance. And this production — directed by Timothy Bond — offers many.
First and foremost is the choice of cast. Although the D.C. theater world sometimes overuses its favorite thespians, Arena’s decision to cast veterans Rick Foucheux and Nancy Robinette as Willy and Linda Loman is — pardon the pun — dead on. The actors are almost unrecognizable as they morph into Miller’s perception of the “everyman,” experiencing life’s unpleasant, yet universal truths. The two actors deliver unrelenting, heartbreaking performances whose strengths are matched only by their characters’ powerful avoidance of the truth.
Foucheux’s intensity fleshes out Willy’s larger-than-life desperation that accompanies his delusions and real-life anxieties. The actor’s vulnerability pulls on our heartstrings when Willy’s motto for success — all you need is “a smile and a shoeshine” and to be “well-liked” — crashes against his self image of being the guy everybody ignores.
Robinette, known for her ability to make theater of the absurd believable, is steadfast in Linda’s role as the co-dependant to a man going mad. She props up the family patriarch against all odds, unsuccessfully trying to keep death at bay.
The actress also cashes in on her gift for comedy when her character chastises the sons, whom she blames for her husband’s fall. After harshly criticizing Hap (ironically short for Happy) for being a selfish philanderer, she quips back with a softened, “Well, you are my darling.” Although humorous, the jarring barbs are mere dysfunctional comic relief when juxtaposed with Linda’s desperate pleas to her other son, Biff, to save Willy’s life.
But this production wouldn’t make half its emotional dent on the audience without a brilliant supporting cast. Biff, who’s come back from the West, is the son most entrenched in Willy’s pain. Now an adult with unfinished childhood business, he rides the internal struggle of wanting to please his father against his anger and need for independence.
Biff is actually the play’s tragic hero, second only to Willy — if “Death of a Salesman” had a sequel, it would be called “Death of a Rancher.” Jeremy Holm gives the character a jarring mix of naiveté, stubbornness and helplessness. His raw acting approach and substantial stature make Biff’s failures and insecurities excruciatingly painful to watch.
Hap, the provincial businessman and other Loman son, boasts incessantly of his apartment, his job and his unending affairs with women. Tim Getman’s portrayal allows the audience to despise Hap for his callousness and false bravado, while at the same time worrying about his inability to change.
Hap’s repeated efforts to impress his parents are both ironically funny and pitiful. “Dad, Mom, I’m gonna get married,” he repeatedly tells his parents in an effort to stave off their disappointments. Minutes later though he’s abandoning his father at a restaurant, assuring two girls he’s picked up that Willy is “just some man” he doesn’t know.
Given the script’s complexities and heavy emotions, Loy Arcenas’s compact, minimalist set is a wise choice. A modest bedroom-hotel room and table and refrigerator for a kitchen are complemented by a near-empty space that changes from a backyard, to an upstairs boy’s room, to a restaurant, and finally to a graveyard. Numerous windows hover over the space, creating a sense of physical and emotional confinement. This space is also where Willy imagines conversations with his brother, “Uncle Ben” — played flawlessly by J. Fred Shiffman — a figure Willy’s blown up in his mind to represent all that he is not.
If you come away from this production in deep awe and admiration, you’re going to love what’s coming next. “Salesman” is only one part of Arena’s Arthur Miller Festival that runs through May. It’s playing in rotating repertoire with “A View from the Bridge,” which examines the promise and failure of the American Dream through the eyes of Brooklyn longshoreman Eddie Carbone. The festival also offers free films, readings and panel discussions exploring Miller’s body of work — assuming you’ve got your Prozac handy.
Death of a Salesman through May 18 Arena Stage 1800 South Bell St., Arlington, Va. Tickets are to . For more information, please call (202) 488-3300 or visit www.arenastage.org.
About the Author
Lisa Troshinsky is the theater reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.