Albert Schultz’s production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is so exquisitely unforced, so subtly true to human desperation, so consistently acted with unfailing integrity by an exemplary cast, that its beauty hurts without relief. As Willy Loman first enters his home in darkness, the sound of a flute permeates the air and gives his presence a lingering ghostly quality on the verge of dissolution. It seems a life drifting by. We witness the relationship of Willy and his supportive wife, Linda, and note the introverted quality of two lives losing their bearings. As an audience, we are not watching, we are intruding. Their two adult sons, simultaneously before us, share a bedroom as they did when they were lads. Happy, we learn, has screwed the girlfriends of three executives with whom he is getting even. Biff, his qualitative opposite, is one to seek the purpose of his life, one to live inwardly. As lads, they revered and heeded their dad who advised, “Be liked” and thus they would thrive. As adults, however, watching their lives and their dad’s fall into ruin of no purpose, they now know better.
Nancy Palk’s Linda is loyal, quietly accommodating, a contained greyish presence that is both support and outlet for Willy in his ongoing frustration. It is a poignant interpretation as she tries, beyond her ability, to smooth each rough edge in the family’s tense life and to nurse her husband’s sinking self-esteem. She fits into the lives of others as needed and, because playwright Miller is acutely sensitive to all places where human dignity can be wounded, she is constantly needed. Palk’s Linda is a woman whose identity is founded on the support she gives to others and because she does all she can, she cannot understand why her efforts are not enough. The familial ship sinks no matter what she does. It takes subtle understanding of character to find complexity in Linda’s lack of comprehension, and Palk has it.
Joseph Ziegler’s Willy is indeed “a little boat looking for a harbor,” a man whose constant urge to succeed through likability denotes a frustratingly small life without a centre. The system he worked to create no longer needs him and Ziegler’s take on a now discarded Willy’s humiliation is detailed with nuance and painfully memorable. He does indeed seem tired at the core and unable to maintain even his shallow standards of dignity. He does indeed seem a man of lifelong loneliness in constant need of approval. In Willy’s decidedly ordinary existence, his recourse is to pipe dreams, to quiet irritation, to attempts at being known -we know this man. Ziegler gives Willy an epic dimension because we detect no attempt to do so on his part, no actor’s reach for meaning. It hurts to watch Ziegler’s (and Miller’s) Willy because we see the hopeless parts of ourselves we’d prefer unspoken.
In two words “ Yah, Pop” Ari Cohen as Biff is eager, obedient and self-destructive at one go, a lad whose total submission to his father’s superficial ideals leads to total disillusionment when he finds his dad with a woman other than his idealized mom. And his ironically freeing realization is that “We have been living a lie for fifteen years”. Biff has always been judged by his dad and now, as he is forced to judge his dad, his old self is destroyed. One tragedy here is that Willy can’t or can’t dare to understand Biff’s father-damning realization that “I am nothing, Pop.” But it is a declaration of existential freedom in the face of Willy who has never been free of the dream that takes him nowhere. The enthusiastic and shallow Happy, played with insightful precision by Tim Campbell, reveals an unsettling emptiness of values. Something of a stud, he is unsatisfied in everything he does and Campbell nails Happy’s inability to think beyond his condition to cause and solution. He is a Willy-in-waiting and, because we know his end, deeply disturbing. We want him to wake up to truth, to see some potential in his life, but he can’t. As with Bif, we feel that Happy lives filial pain.
Lorenzo Savoini’s set is certainly cramped, so overlapping movement at times seems awkward and confusing. On the other hand, the set does act as a psychological mirror of the collective and cluttered emotional mind of the Loman family. One example of Albert Schultz’s acute feeling for Miller’s masterwork is that people touch one another, embrace one another, as we in the audience come to realize that no embrace is strong enough when the other is consumed by the American lie posing as a dream. At Willy’s grave Linda asks “Why didn’t anyone come?” but, in the end, the point is that attention has not been paid and the inhuman capitalistic machine that shaped Willy’s dream and his tragically logical demise has made another killing.