Where are the Lomans of Yesteryear?
THEATER Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller directed by Gerald Freedman at the Colonial Theatre through February 25
Hopelessly stuck in the past, The Colonial Theatre's production of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman will soon attempt to wobble its way onto Broadway. The play's only source of survival is its nostalgic value; its central themes have ceased to resonate in the skeptical American consciousness, and Gerald Freedman's period-piece direction doesn't add anything to the play's relevance.
Miller depicts what he calls "the tragedy of the working class" in Willy Loman (Hal Holbrook), a salesperson whose idealism leads him to ignore his status as an insignificant cog in the American economic machine. Even when his favorite son, Biff (Matt Mulhern), confronts him with this reality as his wife Linda (Elizabeth Franz) watches in tears, Willy refuses to acknowledge his mediocrity.
Unfortunately, the cynicism of the present prevents Loman's plight from being "universal," a necessary condition of any tragedy that hopes to inspire the identification of the audience with the tragic figure. The play thus becomes largely divorced from present societal concerns.
The American dream and the working class are still an affecting source of drama; Sam Shepard and David Mamet are proof. But Death of a Salesman, with its focus on idealism, fails to address the core concerns of an increasingly skeptical world that has already learned from Willy's lesson. Idealism is not a universal frailty like Othello's jealousy or Hamlet's indecision, but a transient societal attitude, and one that is not pervasive today. Those who do not agree will probably enjoy the show.
Freedman's direction does not remedy the play's flaws in any way. It too is stuck in its nostalgia, as it makes no attempt to bridge the audience's distance from the play.
Particularly problematic is the depiction of women as either whores or dish-rags. Elizabeth Franz's Linda, the only female character (out of five) with more than 10 lines, cries her way through the play, lacking the agency to stop Willy's tragic plight, or at least plead ignorance. Franz plays the part in all Miller's intended misogyny, unaware of any alternative interpretation for a complex character who keeps her family together in the most harrowing of times. Her affectedly frail voice and inability to complete a scene without crying are a true source of anguish to the viewer.
The production's saving graces are Holbrook and Mulhearn. There would be no reason to see this production without their performances. Holbrook captures Willy in all his passion and idealism. He communicates the American past as if it had all the immediacy of the present. Failure to identify with him does not prevent feelings of pity from rising from his sincere performance.
Mulhearn's Biff matches Holbrook's Willy blow for blow. His character's psychological simplicity cannot subvert the complexity and fire Mulhearn infuses in his performance. Even when it's painfully evident why he does everything he does (e.g. he steals because his father taught him to), his emotional turmoil is still affecting.
The rest of the cast is capable but unable to transcend its status as one-dimensional narrative tools. John Speredakos as Happy, David Brummel as Charley, Bill Kaux as Howard Wagner, Spike McClure as Bernard and Ron Parady as Uncle Ben, all play their roles competently--no scene-stealers here.
Like the production's sensibility, Freedman's staging and Chris Barrecca's sets are also depressingly stodgy. There are many awkward scene changes. A clandestine affair in a hotel room is carried out without the benefit of a bed. Boundaries between spaces become unnecessarily confused. No doubt the creative team justifies the last critique as a reflection of Willy's fluid movement from reality to dream, but the result is distracting and confusing.
Despite superb performances from two of the show's main actors, this production of Death of a Salesman depends on an American idealism that is presently in its deathbed. Only the revival of that consciousness can produce a successful revival of the play.