Sunday, February 07, 2010

Death of Salesman

“DEATH OF A SALESMAN’ gets a thoughtful production at Lakeland

Arthur Miller’s ‘DEATH OF A SALEMAN,’ is one of the greatest American plays. True to Miller’s form, the script probes his theme of the workings of society and asks his perennial question, “Is this the best way to live?”

On the surface, the play concerns Willy Loman, a traveling salesman who has worked for the same company for thirty-four years. He is now sixty-one years old, has lost his clients and has to borrow money from Charlie, his neighbor and only friend, in order to pay his bills. Neither of Willy's sons, who were brought up with Willy’s philosophy that to be “well liked” is the most important thing in life, have become the “heroes” he dreamed they would become. Willy has been plagued by illusions as he disintegrates into a state of failed dreams. He dies, as he lived, in a state of unrealistic expectations.
Oh, but how much more Miller is saying! It is almost impossible for one to leave the theatre without asking personal questions about the values by which you live your life and your affect on not only yourself, but the significant others in your life.

‘DEATH OF A SALESMAN’ opened on Broadway in 1949. It ran only 742 performances, but won both the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize for drama. The original production was directed by Elia Kazan with Lee J. Cobb starring in the leading role of Willy Loman.
The play made both Arthur Miller and the character, Willy Loman, household names. Classified as a modern tragedy, it illustrates the downfall of a man, an everyman in this case, because of a tragic flaw. The misguided Loman ( the proverbial "low man"), has the flaws of a misguided image of self and ill-conceived values. As in the traditional tragedy, the hero’s downfall not only affects him, but those who surround him.

The play’s requiem is one the most emotionally moving scenes in modern theatre. Linda (Willy’s wife) and Happy (youngest son), stand in shock after Willy’s poorly attended funeral. Biff (the oldest son) states that Willy had the wrong dreams. (Thus, he has a denouement, an awakening, a requirement for the development of a modern tragedy, which, in this case, acknowledges that he has learned from Willy’s mistakes.) Biff invites Happy to flee the city and Willy’s influence. Happy, having not learned the lesson of ill-placed values, declares that he will stick it out in New York to validate Willy’s death. Linda stands at the grave looking downward and asks Willy for forgiveness for being unable to cry. She begins to sob, repeating “I don’t know why you did it. We’re free, we are finally free and clear. . . .” All exit, and a flute melody is heard as the curtain falls.

‘DEATH OF A SALESMAN’ is very difficult to perform to it’s highest level of effectiveness. This is especially true for amateurs, which basically is what is appearing on the Lakeland Civic Theatre’s stage. Under Martin Friedman’s direction, the cast does an acceptable job.

Mark Cipra gives a creditable performance as Willy. We feel his pain, observe his lack of ability to create reality as he escapes into a fantasy world. We, appropriately, want to scream at him, “Wake up and realize you are living a life of lies and misjudgments.”

Maryann Elder is excellent as the enabler wife who knows what Willy is doing is wrong, but her misspent love causes her to hide the truth from him. Unfortunately, Elder fails to completely develop the emotional impact of the requiem.

Though he tries hard, Christopher Richards doesn’t have the maturity to develop the frustration needed to fully flesh out Biff. Christopher Richards comes closer to exploring the underpinnings of Happy.

Michael Green gives a good spin on the character of Charley. The rest of the cast is quite acceptable.

Friedman has taken several liberties with the script that must be questioned. For example, he has given us actors who portray younger versions of Biff, Happy and Linda. Their reason is questionable. Since much of the play is illusionary, if well conceived the same actors who play the grown up trio would have made for less confusion. Miller didn’t include them in the original script. Why tinker with brilliance?

He has also added music throughout the play. The music does nothing to enhance the actions, often leading to underscoring confusion, and in some instances drowns out the quieter speeches.

Why was the sound of the car starting, followed by the straining engine, and then the crash, eliminated before the final scene? This is needed to clarify the way Willy misguidedly died.

Trad Burns lighting is excellent, but his set design, doesn’t work. The playing area of the house is not well conceived causing awkward blocking. Why are Biff and Happy sleeping on the floor, not in beds? What is the purpose of the anti-room that is on the second level? The supposed “flash back area” is often misused as scenes from the present invade the space.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Lakeland’s ‘DEATH OF A SALSMAN’ will allow its audiences to experience one of America’s great plays. Those attending, in spite of some questionable aspects of the production, will leave having the basic impact of Miller’s message. And, gaining that understanding is the essence of the reason for producing the script.