Materialism is destructive, especially when its false ideals lodge in the breast of a man who is too good for them. In director Jeremy Cole's beautifully realized staging of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman's wrenching descent into madness and death speaks eloquently to the "winners and losers" mentality of American culture in the Nineties--and convincingly denounces it. Cole's production at the Town Hall Arts Center features several fine performances and a thoughtful, poignant interpretation of what is arguably Miller's greatest play.
The set, cluttered with all the detritus of consumer culture, provides the perfect ambience for the story, which traces Willy's own messy life from the 1930s to the 1950s. As the play opens, Willy's oldest son Biff has returned to the familial hearth after an absence of many years. He wants to see his mother and brother, of course, but he also wants to somehow break through to Willy. Willy, though, is losing it. Haunted by the specter of his rich, departed older brother Ben, Willy still thinks Biff is meant for greater things.
But Biff was meant to till the soil under a wide-open sky, to labor with his hands and enjoy the workman's portion of satisfaction. Willy, too, was meant for such a life but was seduced by dreams of money and prestige--a pathetically meager idea of success he learned from Ben and from the money-obsessed society around him.
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The play flashes back and forth in time. We learn that when Willy's boys were teens they adored their father, looking up to him as wise and wonderful. Willy, though, filled their heads with nonsense about the importance of "being liked" and "making a mark," and the boys' values became as shallow as his own. When one night Biff found Willy in a hotel room with a loose woman, he was shattered by the fall of his idol. Willy never recovered, either. Biff still loves his father and wants to communicate with him, but Willy is lost: He can't see what he is or what might have made him happy.
Neil Dooley gives a tight-lipped, agonizing portrait of a man in decline. This raw-nerved Willy is less sentimentalized than usual and yet not so cold as Dustin Hoffman's TV version of a few years back. It's hard to empathize at first with Dooley's Willy--he's as blind as a rock until the end, when his humanity stands fully unmasked. Toni Brady as his faithful wife gives another warm, smart performance; she's the glue that brings all the characters together. Kevin Hart's honest, suffering Biff, so full of anger and tenderness, offers an authentic vision of a man determined to renounce self-deception at any cost. And Tom Bottelsen as Biff's deluded baby brother and William Berry as his wealthy cousin give sharp touches to the play's dreamy substance.
Failure is an awful fate, but there are all kinds of failure. For Miller, the failure to make money is the one judged most harshly in America. Yet more desolating than that in Salesman is Miller's vision of dysfunction and patriarchal power plays in a desperately unhappy family. The death that Willie suffers, many have suffered. The love he feels but fails to express, many more have failed to show their children. As Cole delicately reveals, this is Biff's tragedy as much as Willie's: Sometimes it's easier to love one's enemies than it is to love one's friends.--Mason
Death of a Salesman, through March 2 at the Town Hall Arts Center, 2450 West Main Street, Littleton, 794-2787.