Dear God, but I am sick of Death of a Salesman, which I've now had to see three times in the past year. Despite the play's ahead-of-its-time dramatic devices and portentous poeticizing, it continues to strike me as an endlessly protracted whine. And a verbose and dated whine, at that. Every point that playwright Arthur Miller wants to make he repeats again and again; every repetition he surrounds with a flood of words. The insights into consumerism and the commodification of human beings were somewhat new in 1949, but they've been pretty well chewed to a pulp by now.
Was there ever a worse set of parents than Willy and Linda Loman? At the beginning of the play, Willy comes in from a failed sales trip, a tired and broken man, barely holding on to his sanity. He has devoted his life to the ideal of being well-liked by his customers -- and thus achieving material success. As a result, he's dishonest and a bullshitter, and he's nurtured these questionable qualities in his two sons, Biff and Happy. Biff, an incorrigible pilferer who's been traveling the country, subsisting on low-paid and occasional jobs, is home for a visit. Happy welcomes his brother's return. He's never strayed far from home, lies about his dead-end job and distracts himself from reality with meaningless sex.
Times are rough, what with Willy reduced to working on commission and expenses mounting, but there are some odd lacunae in the plot. Franklin D. Roosevelt's Social Security Act was more than a decade old by the time Death of a Salesman was written, but it seems to have done nothing for the Lomans. And although some 36 percent of the workforce at the time was female, Linda never offers to go to work, not even as Willy falls apart before her eyes. Even odder, Willy is willing to accept $50 a week from his friend Charley -- whom he abuses for his kindness -- but even after he's fired from his sales slot, he refuses Charley's offer of a steady, legitimate job. Willy's familial failures are equally great. In a series of flashback scenes, we see him ignore the needy and ironically named Happy, and encourage the teenage Biff to neglect his studies and to cheat when advantageous.
But this production at the Aurora Fox has a saving grace: Director Chip Walton has assembled a cast capable of breathing life into the play. As Linda, Karen Erickson gives the strongest performance I've seen to date in this part, imbuing the character with moments of genuine dignity and even anger. But even Erickson can't redeem this wretched role; Linda is not only a timid doormat and an enabler if ever that word had meaning, she is also a monstrously bad mother, endlessly guilt-tripping Biff and Happy for being insufficiently worshipful of their father. As Willy, William Denis soars and blithers, declaims like an old-fashioned Shakespearean actor and stumbles like a drunkard. Ironically, it's often his silences that touch us most. Ed Cord is open-faced and energetic as Happy; I'd like to have seen a bit more uncertainty beneath the chipper manner. Kurt Soderstrom is a humorous but dignified Charley, and Matt Zambrano is sweetly convincing as the nerdy and persistently underestimated Bernard. Uncle Ben is a hard part to pull off: How do you play a character who's part myth, part hallucination? Wisely, Joe Wilson makes him as solid and down-to-earth as anyone else on the stage. There's no weakness in the small roles, either. Phil Luna is convincing as Howard, and even Mark Marlow's waiter and Rebecca Gibel's annoyingly giggly mistress feel real and specific.
The most memorable scene in Salesman -- and the payoff for sitting through the rest -- is the final confrontation between Willy and Biff. When David C. Riley played Biff at Denver Rep a year ago, he gave the character an odd ferocity that turned out to mask sheer existential terror. In that scene, he unraveled completely -- and it was devastating to watch. Brett Aune brings a cooler and more aloof presence to the part. His Biff isn't particularly smart, but he's constantly trying to figure things out -- who Willy is, who he is himself. The breakdown that sends him into his father's arms is total, but brief. Later, you realize that Biff has grown in stature, that he might be the only member of this fractured family to have acquired something resembling dignity.
Aune's interpretation adds an ironic gloss to one of the of the play's most moving moments: Willy's realization that Biff loves him, despite everything. Because you're not at all sure that Aune's Biff really does love his father, and if so, it's a love qualified by his newfound understanding of just who his father is. While Aune's approach lessens the emotional impact of the ending, it adds to the play's overall complexity and interest, and to the pathos of Willy's death.
Aune, one of Denver's best actors, left for Los Angeles to seek his fortune more than two years ago. It's a pleasure seeing him on a local stage again, and I hope he'll keep returning -- for anything other than Death of a Salesman.
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