by Marty Demarest
Arthur Miller intended his 1949 tragedy to explode the promise of American capitalism, "or at least the bullshit kind of capitalism, this pseudo-life that thought to touch the clouds by standing on top of a refrigerator, waving a paid-up mortgage at the moon, victorious at last."
Miller's protagonist, Willy Loman, is convinced that he'll achieve that illusory American dream, if only he can acquire enough possessions and gain enough adulation. He dies for the son he loves, convinced that at last he has clawed his way out of the ash can stuffed with all the other dead salesmen. For half a century, audiences have looked on, crying and scoffing -- saddened by their self-recognition in Willy, derisive because his death amounts to nothing.
Willy is truly the low man on a totem pole that exists only in his own imagining, an icon painted with the faces of get-rich-quick schemers who want to see him a bill of goods. "The man didn't know who he was," sums up the elder son, and Miller's play, which had the working title of The Inside of His Head, seeks to insinuate the same question into spectators' minds. As we busily pile up approval and acquisitions, do we even know who we are?
Susan Hardie's production of Death of a Salesman on the Spokane Civic Theatre's Mainstage presents that question effectively enough, urging us toward self-examination even as it falls short of driving the question fully home.
In the premier role, Kim D. Berg delivers a powerful performance, especially when it comes to conveying Willy's perplexity about how to grasp success. Berg over-relies on a pleading gesture -- palms up, arms waggling out in front -- but he excels at portraying Willy's ceaseless (if deluded) optimism. While he nearly summits this Everest of a role, Berg is still questing for an integrated characterization rather than a series of moments. In the restauant scene with his sons, he jumps from beat to emotional beat, now full of hope, then down in the dumps. We get a series of vignettes instead of the man in full.
As Biff, the elder son, Jhon Goodwin conveys his character's compassion for his mother, but underplays the affection Biff has for his father. Admittedly, Biff is more than a little wary of the father who disillusioned and disappointed him; but after the final confrontation in the kitchen, the reconciliation of the father-son embrace doesn't signify much unless Biff allows filial love to burst through the hard shell of his distrust. Goodwin, still wobbly with his lines opening night, is accomplished enough as an actor to make the character grow during the production's run.
Susan Hardie's direction effects some nice touches. She has The Woman (Jacqueline Davis) gesture toward some significant silk stockings while they're adorning an attractive pair of legs, charging one of Willy's guilty moments with sexual tension. She bathes the Loman brothers in autumnal light as they fret over their mother. She balances the scene of Biff and Hap worrying about their father, who's muttering in the kitchen, with a scene in which the Loman parents worry about Biff, alone in the kitchen, mulling over his lost dreams.
Peter Hardie's set, by suggesting some roof lines and pushing background tenements close behind the Lomans' patch of dirt and dying seedlings, compliments Jo Mielziner's expressionistic innovations of the original Broadway production. Throughout the action, the Lomans look cramped by their home, just as the playwright intended.
As Happy, the younger, sexually compulsive Loman son, George Green provides boyish charm, reminding us that, despite the title, there are moments of laughter in this play. Yet Green (who manages circulation and promotions at The Inlander) overdoes the boyishness in the flashback scenes, telegraphing his eagerness to please in cartoonish ways. He's not alone in this tendency. During Willy's reveries about the good old days of his sons' youth and promise, both Goodwin and Thomas Heppler (as Biff and Bernard, the smarty-pants next door) also fall into a cloying, Leave It to Beaver mode.
In his autobiography, Timebends, Miller makes it clear that, in real life, he himself played Bernard to the athletic-but-deluded Newman brothers down the street: Bernard is no cartoon, because he's Miller's self-portrait. In a later scene, though, with Bernard now the grown-up attorney, Heppler dignifies the character effectively.
Critics debate whether Ben Loman, Willy's elder brother -- the one who struck it rich in Africa -- actually exists within the world of the play or is merely a figment of Willy's disintegrating mind. Maynard Villers' accomplishment in the role is to suggest both possibilities. Imposing in an ice-cream suit with gold watch fob, furtive as a growly voiced tempter, Villers is everything you could ask for in the role. In the same moment, he seems undeniably there and yet unquestionably imaginary.
If Ben is the showy part, the understated role is that of Linda Loman, wife and mother. Melody Deatherage is powerful and sympathetic in the part. Her love for her sons is evident, as is her steadfastness at Willy's side. She can be meek when rebuked but fiery in condemnation of her sons,
In the Requiem, when the house is at last paid off and there's no one to live in it, Deatherage's chant of "free and clear" is all the more powerful for its quietness.
In the end, Willy Loman is the guy who's waving receipts at the sky, certain that he's won a race of which only he is aware. Miller's classic play reminds us that, sadly, like Willy, we are better acquainted with externals than we are with the insides of our own heads.