Playwright Arthur Miller.
Death of A Salesman
By Arthur Miller
Directed by Russell Spencer
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2014 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
If Arthur Miller is the greatest American playwright at the mid-20th century mark, then certainly Death of A Salesman is his greatest play, and therefore one of the greatest American plays of our time. It speaks to the boom in capitalism following World War II and the changing role of men in the new corporate culture. Willy Loman is a vivid symbol of the devalued “average” man in the autumn of American world dominance. To watch it now seems like bearing witness to the beginning of the corporate culture that dominates every aspect of American society.
Willy has been a salesman for 36 years and now struggles to make ends meet and confront the harsh reality of the lack of success for himself and his two sons, Biff and Happy. His loyal wife Linda tries desperately to hold the family together. If that description sounds routine and familiar, it is evidence of the potency of the play’s themes that continue to resonate and leave a legacy in American drama some 60 years after it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (1949).
While community theatres often embrace classic plays, Salesman is a complex, challenging text – even the 2012 Broadway revival directed by no less than Mike Nichols garnered mixed reviews. Clarksville Little Theatre delivers an earnest, well-intentioned version that only intermittently plumbs the depths of the script with success.
Structurally the play juxtaposes two time frames: 1948, when Willy seems to be losing his grip on reality as his career falls apart and his two sons are adults facing their own difficulties, and several years earlier when they were boys in high school. In the first act, these transitions were abrupt and sometimes confusing, with not enough attention paid to delineating the flashbacks that emanate from Willy’s troubled psyche. These moments need to breathe a bit more than they do here. By act two the audience has grown accustomed enough to these shifts and some clarity is restored.
Performance is often also an issue, although good effort is involved. Jay R. Lillie makes for an interesting Willy Loman, successfully depicting a small, nasally and neurotic personality that works well enough to illuminate the themes of the play. A common image of Willy is to see him as a once solid man who has been beaten down, but because Lillie plays him the same in both time frames, whether by limitation or design, the fraudulence of the character is emphasized.
Gregory Bone is a decent enough Biff, and certainly brings passion and energy to his work, even though his anachronistic modern facial hair is distracting. Wes Yunker does well with Happy and Heidi Platt does solid work as Willy’s wife, Linda. Among the remaining ensemble, as the neighbors who are closest to the Lomans, Spencer Korcz is sometimes too hyper-kinetic as the young Bernard, who looks up to Biff, but he gets it just right as the adult version who counsels Willy with compassion, and Michael McCollum manages an effective Charley, his father.
The rest do creditable work although it is in the service of a production that is never able to rise above the confines of conventionality. It sails along the surfaces of the play with respect, but rarely displays true understanding of the tragedy unfolding for the Loman family. Director Russell Spencer perhaps takes too serious an approach, missing much of the humor that brings greater dimension to the play.
On the other hand, I see community theatres like Clarksville too often choose third-rate material unworthy of the company or its audience, so Death of A Salesman must be recognized for a brave and risky move when musicals and light comedies are more likely to sell tickets. Artistically, I would rather witness a struggle to realize a great play than the same effort wasted on a mediocre one.
Death of A Salesman
March 14-22, 2014
Clarksville Little Theatre
301 East Montgomery Ave.
Clarksville, IN 47129