A Revitalized 'Death'

Death of a Salesman Directed by David Wheeler At the Charles Playhouse through November 29

ARTHUR MILLER'S DEATH OF A SALESMAN evokes the same sort of feelings as the stinking down-and-out crazies in a train station: pity and also revulsion. One pities Willy Loman and his family for their failures, but their devastation is repellant. The original production provoked strong emotion, and director David Wheeler has breathed the same fiery power into the current show.

Dan Fraser playes Willy Loman, the aging salesman, and he rivets us with a powerful performance. Willy is effective because he utterly fails to understand, despite an earnest search, why his life has turned sour. Miller carefully inserts a few segments from Willy's past that vividly expose the story of his wasted life and parade the painful truths about Willy's life, built on self-delusion. This dreamworld derails as he starts repeatedly running off the road while traveling on his weekly sales trips to New England. After 36 years, the long-distance drives are too much for him.

The play opens when he returns home one evening, unable to complete his usual rounds of Boston buyers. Immediately, Miller brings into focus the imminent collapse of Willy's life. Willy's olders son, Biff, played by Michael Sacks, has returned home unemployed after drifting through many menial jobs and several years on low wages on a ranch out West. "Biff is magnificent." Willy protests to himself, adding, "He's such a great saiesman. When is he going to realize it and settle down in business?" But, Biff, 34 years old, cannot communicate with his father, for Willy seems to understand nothing of Biff as the younger man views himself. Bill asserts. "I love working out-doors, under the sky, with my hands. I love working on a ranch. Why can't you see that?" But Willy sees only success as the success that he had always wanted.

Fraser and Sacks stalk around the kitchen table, glaring at each other throughout much of the first act. They balance each other's performances: unfortunately, both take most of this act to warm up. When they finally click in their roles the show quickly gains impact. Fraser moves with the uncertainty of an old man, his hands shaking as he presses back his hair with habitual nervousness, his feet shuffling as he constantly paces back and forth, trying to understand his life and, especially, his oldest son.

On the other hand, Willy consistantly ignores his younger son, Happy, who always attempts to attract some attention. Happy is the rather ordinary side of Biff that his father refuses to acknowledge, and that Biff, bewildered by the dad he loves so deeply, has always tried to make Willy see. Happy shouts, "Look Dad, I'm losing weight, huh Dad," and stands on his head, but Willy is busy pumping up Biff. "You pumped my head so full of hot air I wasn't good for anything," accuses Biff toward the end of the play.

Less and less able to cope, Willy has taken to working in his "garden," a tiny patch of dirt behind his house in choking Brooklyn in the middle of the night. He is trying to plant something, he yells up to his frantic wife and angry, embarrassed sons; he wants to rid himself of the "kind of temporary feeling" he has about his life. Wheeler handles the symbolism of this scene very well, blacking out the otherwise ever-present kitchen set and using subtle filters in the lighting to create a dreamlike effect.

In some scenes, Willy talks loudly to a not-present individual, and Miller reconstructs the imaginary speaker for the audience, although he remains invisible to the other characters. Willy implores the ghost, Willy's older brother. "Ben, what's the secret to success? Did I do something wrong?" James Bohnen plays Ben's phantom with such presence one feels like reaching out and touching his huge tweed overcoat as he roams around the aisles in the audience. He replies repeatedly, "Willy, when I was 17, I went into the jungle. When I was 21, I came out. And damned if I wasn't rich. Diamonds." Willy has repeated this and other formulas to himself throughout his life ever since the age of six, when his father died. He has transfixed success in his mind as the only goal to pursue, and his brother's ideas as the only ones to follow. They are all larger-than-life in his puerile outlook on life. Willy stopped maturing when his father died, and his neighbor and friends keep asking him, "Willy, when are you going to grow up?"

HIS WIFE, Linda, participates unconsciously in perpetuating Willy's delusions; she pretends not to know his salary has been slashed to the bone and that he borrows money from a friend each week to bring her a "salary." She does not confront him with the rubber pipe he hides in the basement and doesn't tell him she knows he wants to kill himself with it. Linda chastizes ungrateful Biff when he rebels; he is trying to shake off the chains of his father's beliefs about him. "You wretch! You don't know, but I'll tell you! That man has taken not a step that wasn't to help you, Biff. He slaved for 36 years so that you could be a success. And all you see is a bumbling phony old fool who talks to himself." Sally Chamberlain plays Linda with great energy, loyally protecting her husband, her heart torn over his failures because she sees he cannot accept them. The small Charles Playhouse lends itself nicely to these scenes, adding an uncomfortable intimacy to the family confrontations.

The despair and humiliation greeting the audience do not let up, ranging from the all-too-believable scene when the young son of Willy's old boss cooly fires him flat after 36 years and adds with crushing casualness, "Oh, and, uh, could you drop off your sample case as soon as possible?" to the wrenching scene in a restaurant bathroom, when Willy cannot remember where he is. Thinking he is in a hotel room in Boston, Willy relives a time when Biff, fresh out of high school, surprises him fooling around with a secretary to while away the lonely nights. Willy falls on his knees begging Biff to forgive him, but in reality he is only clutching at a waiter's apron.

The cast manages to hammer home Miller's point excellently, but this statement about American life seems slightly dated (although perhaps only to those of us who can barely remember back past the '60s). Miller tells us to be true to ourselves, to find our real vocation, and to avoid the dead end of the American business world. But Sartre is fading, and preoccupation with self-exploration has given way to less taxing concerns. No existential conundrums can grip today's imaginations; people have finished with searching their souls; it has gone out of fashion. Miller's presentation is emotionally gripping but is less than timely.