KPBS AIRDATE: FEBRUARY 10, 1999
February 10, 1949. The curtain comes down on complete silence. Long, long pause before the audience rises, as one, in a tumultuous ovation. Stunned, moved beyond being able to move, and then ecstatic. That auspicious moment, exactly 50 years ago today, was the Broadway opening of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” We have a celebratory production right here, at the San Diego Repertory Theatre, and at the same time, there is a major revival opening in New York tonight. Half a century, 400 scholarly treatises and 11 million copies later, the play still has a lot to say.
It may be a Great American Tragedy; it may indict the obsession with work, competition, capitalism and the pursuit of the elusive American Dream. But this is really, timelessly, a story about fathers and sons. And it’s that that’s left decades of audiences weeping. About excessive expectations and not measuring up. About alienation and being unable to say ‘I love you.’ About bluster and false pride and self-deception. And about leaving your mark on the world. It’s often the men who weep.
And it’s still all so familiar, even now. Even when men don’t give 34 years of their lives to one company. Even when mortgages don’t often get paid off; but when they do, they still leave a couple “free and clear,” as Linda cries over her husband’s grave. And all men have relationships with their fathers, many, if not most of them unsatisfying or unresolved. So many men are still trying to live up to the expectations, come to grips with the truth and the fiction of who their father actually was. And because of the eternal relationship truths, “attention… [will always] be paid” to this play, to paraphrase Linda Loman’s famous line.
Maybe men don’t get turned out to pasture from long-time jobs; worse yet, these days, there’s no employment loyalty at all, and “downsizing” or “layoffs” are everyday occurrences. But living life as a series of self-delusions starts to catch up with you. And one day, one of your sons may confront you with the truth of what a sham it’s all been, what a hypocrite you are. Willy Loman is not just a salesman; he’s an American Everyman. And when he goes down, a part of all of us and our collective history is lost, too.
In staging this multi-layered masterwork, director Todd Salovey has assembled a stellar ensemble and an outstanding design team. Giulio Cesare Perrone has fashioned a time-worn, two-level set, with a simple kitchen below and a small loft above, all “bricks and windows, windows and bricks,” just as Willy describes it. Dominating the stage is a big old truck, sometimes intrusively, half-sunk in dirt, a symbol of the play’s recurring automotive theme: Willy the traveling salesman, who repeatedly relives his sons’ simonizing of the Chevy; making his entrance lugging those sample cases, having had yet another setback in his car; and Willy ultimately taking leave of the earth in his vehicle. The traffic light above, flashing from red to green, is less effective, but the lighting and sound, including original music by Michael Roth, are arousing and evocative.
The performances are uniformly excellent, from Barbara Tarbuck’s no-nonsense, pragmatic Linda to Peter Friedrich’s muscle-bound Happy, Douglas Roberts’ powerfully disillusioned Biff, Jonathan McMurtry’s teasing, empathic Charley, Manuel Fernandes’ terrific turns as the young and old bookworm Bernard, and Michael Hummel making the most of the tiny role of a waiter, whom he makes totally Noo Yawk.
At the center of it all, there’s Mike Genovese, working so hard, doing so well, and yet not breaking your heart. This is a Willy who seems to be losing his mind, but more to Alzheimer’s Disease than to a crumbling inner self. He appears to be fighting more of an external than an internal battle. It’s a good performance, not a great one. I wanted to weep for him when he was brought down, but I never shed a tear.
©1999 Patté Productions Inc.