The Real Deal
Denver Repertory's Death of a Salesman is one of those low-budget shows that's held together with chewing gum, string and ferocious determination. Which means it's uneven. The set and lighting are minimal, because neither the company nor the John Hand Theatre has the resources to create the mix of dream, flashback and reality that Arthur Miller's play requires; a couple of the performances are downright amateurish. But there's still a power to the final scenes that justifies the entire endeavor.
Death of a Salesman is the story of Willy Loman, an aging salesman whose lifelong belief that popularity and self-presentation are the keys to success is crashing down about his ears. He hears voices, talks to himself and contemplates suicide. Willy has imposed his tainted dreams on his sons: Biff, the older of the two, is a drifter and thief, filled with an inchoate longing for a purer, cleaner life in the West and the feel of something real in his hands; Happy, the younger son, has bought his father's worldview and is trying to succeed through bluff and equivocation while seducing women to ease the pain of his dead-end job.
Miller's critique of American materialism remains relevant, but his words often feel dated, as do the play's most famous lines: "Attention must be paid," and the description of the salesman as "out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine." Society has changed. Willy's cry that "You can't eat the orange and then throw the peel away. A man is not a piece of fruit" carried a lot of pathos in the 1950s, but these days, we know that's precisely what corporations do -- and many people find the practice admirable. Last semester, a student of mine commented in a paper that worker rights and a healthy economy were incompatible; he didn't ask by what right an economy in which the majority of the population was miserable could be termed healthy.
There are other weaknesses to the script. It's talky, repetitive and heavily sentimental; the structure is ragged, and some scenes -- like the meeting in the restaurant and Willy's interactions with his mistress -- are simply absurd. And I keep wondering why seventeen-year-old Biff remains so infatuated with his loser father (most teenagers are pretty astute about their parents) and why weepy wife Linda doesn't offer to get a job -- even if it's an offer Willy will probably refuse. Then there's the figure of Uncle Ben, Willy's mythical brother, the man who walked into the unknown and came out rich. Ben is sometimes a flashback, sometimes pure illusion. He preaches self-reliance and the virtue of making something real in the world, but he also symbolizes the American dream of quick and unearned wealth. Is he meant to be exemplary or an indication of Willy's twisted values -- or both? Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between complexity and contradiction.
Yet there's something stirring here, something that matters, and in deciding to focus more on the anguished love within the Loman family than on the play's social and political dimension, director Madge Montgomery has mounted a frequently exciting production.
Although Ellen Ransom has some moving moments as Linda, the juice lies primarily in the interactions between Willy and his sons. When David C. Riley first entered, I thought he'd simply been miscast. His Biff is a hovering presence -- part menace, part James Dean. It's impossible to take your eyes off Riley when he's on stage. You keep watching, fascinated, even when what he's doing seems wrong for the play. Take the smile, for instance, an almost-snarl that you eventually realize masks pure terror. As the play progresses, the terror becomes more and more explicit, and the smile more and more convincing. Biff's final confrontation with Willy is a harrowing mix of rage and love, but there's nothing as easy as reconciliation here: You're viewing the disintegration of a human being.
Timothy Englert brings an endearing goofiness to the role of Willy, but he also gives full play to the man's anguish and fury. Phil Newsom's Happy seems like a genuinely '50s kind of guy. Though he's silent during most of the emotional fireworks, you can read his feelings in his eyes: sorrow, calculation, pity, the eternal loneliness of the neglected younger brother.
Riley and Newsom don't look like brothers, and neither looks like Englert's son; you don't see these men as part of the same family. But this illustrates both the limitations and strengths of a small company. While a bigger theater would have had several actors to choose among, I'm guessing Montgomery simply picked the three best male actors in the relevant age ranges available to her. And, in odd ways, it works. Somehow the passion and unexpectedness of these men's interactions jolt our expectations and galvanize the text.
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