By John Quinn
Review: ‘Death of a Salesman’
The American Dream unravels: Arthur Miller’s classic drama opens at the Hilberry
If any of you claim you’ve never heard at least the title of this play, I’ll be picking my jaw off the floor. Arthur Miller’s 1949 masterpiece ranks as one of the most important, influential – the best – drama in the American theater. You may even have had to read it in high school or college. Don’t let that deter you from renewing an acquaintance. This emotional story of people living lies looks a lot better on stage than it ever can in print.
Now on to the crib notes: Willy Loman has been a traveling salesman for 34 years; his world is falling apart. He is now 61, has been taken off salary and put on straight commission; he’s unable to earn enough money to pay the bills. The man has lived such a fantasy of his success that he cannot face the reality of his failure, and wanders more and more in reveries of a past that never was.
He relies on his faithful wife, Linda, as his emotional anchor, but is at a loss to explain the failures of his two sons. Biff, the apple of his father’s eye, is now a drifter; Happy, the younger, is a one-note womanizer. Willie can’t admit that he’s as much a failure as husband and father as he is as a salesman.
“Death of a Salesman” is really the story of this sad, dysfunctional family, most especially about the struggle Biff wages with his father for his own soul. It is the timeless account of sons who won’t follow in Dad’s footsteps.
Andrew Huff, as Willie, has the unenviable task of portraying a man who is decades older than his real age, and in the last stages of mental breakdown. In his gut-wrenching interplay with Tony Bozzuto as Biff, we get to the heart of the tragedy – an irreparable break in communication between father and son.
Director James Thomas presents us with a morality play – a modern “Faust.” This allows him to use the memory of Willie’s brother Ben, who stumbled across his fortune, as a driving force in his delusions. Played by Aaron T. Moore in devilish black and red, Ben become Mephistopheles as ringmaster. Miller would approve – his “Everyman” (Low-Man?) is tempted by the baser instincts of capitalist society.
David Court’s set design is a colorless mix of exposed lathe and crumbling brick – a decaying structure that nicely complements Willie’s deteriorating mind. More puzzling are some selections of costume and makeup. We’re left to wonder about the symbolism of the cityscape of vertical lines that ornament the hems, cuffs and hatbands of otherwise drab mid-century clothing. The meaning behind when and why some cast members change makeup eludes me.
But this drama rings so true that references to Studebakers and $50-a-week salaries detract in no way from the core message. A better ballad of the “little” people will be a long time coming.
The Bottom Line: A taut rendition of this classic masterpiece explores the lost hopes and missed opportunities that are the counterpoints of the American Dream.
“Death of a Salesman” Performed in Repertory at the Hilberry Theatre, 4743 Cass Ave., Detroit, through March 24. Tickets: $15 – $22. (313) 577-2960. www.theatre.wayne.edu/t_hilberry.html.