Most people (and most scholars) view Willy Loman as a tragic hero, the “low man on the totem pole,” devoting (and sacrificing) his life to capitalism, only to be crushed by the system, not unlike today’s auto workers whose jobs have disappeared due to outsourcing. Spiro Veloudos’ production of Arthur Miller’s DEATH OF A SALESMAN (playing @ Lyric Stage through March 15th) looks a lot deeper into Willy’s character.
That dream Willy is chasing is flawed from the get-go. You can’t just “walk into the jungle” as he imagines his brother Ben did, and emerge in three years with diamonds. And you can’t succeed with just a shoeshine and a smile. Veloudos and Ken Baltin have uncovered a stubborn, belligerent man who is quick to fly off the handle, quick to blame everyone but himself. Baltin’s Willy condones (and encourages) his sons to steal lumber from a construction site. Is it any surprise that they cheat and philander when his fatherly advice is to glad hand your way through life?
While Willy is bent on pursuing “The American Dream,” his family is falling apart. His absence as a husband and father is keenly obvious in Veloudos’ production. Baltin doesn’t romanticize Willy one whit. With his Willy we’re “paying attention” to his every unkind word, his every lumbering movement. I was surprised that Baltin managed to elicit my sympathy (for a moment) when he foolishly, selfishly turns down a generous offer of work.
Paula Plum plays his wife as a sweet, reticent soul who keeps trying to comfort her unhappy, non-responsive husband---and we can see the fear on Plum’s face when she isn’t able to prevent an outburst or a fight between Willy and his older son, Biff. Kelby T. Aken gives a powerful performance as the second generation failure in the making. His breakdown makes the tragedy in SALESMAN resonate, even more (for me) than Willy’s death.
Joseph Marrella is the younger brother who has learned from his father to exaggerate his importance, lie about his job and gad about, picking up women. Lovely comic relief comes in the character of Bernard, the studious kid they all ridicule. He’s the one who’ll go places, of course, and he won’t be selling anything. Victor L. Shopov is delightful as the bespectacled boy who morphs into a confidant, successful adult. Larry Coen plays his father, getting laughs in the first act and a strong scene in the second, when he tries to help the family.
Miller’s largest character in the play is the symbolic Ben, the figment/memory fragment of Willy’s imagination, the heroic “American” ideal of the adventurer/explorer who triumphantly returns with the spoils. Will McGarrahan strides onto the set looking cinematic and bigger than life, like Robert Mitchum ready to conquer the world. It’s a skillful effort from McGarrahan—which gave me chills at the end, when he urges Willy toward the death in the title of the play.