Thursday, March 5, 2009
“Death of a Salesman” whirls through psyche with elegant dreams and ungainly reality
Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” is still entirely relevant and excruciating today. DeSales University’s production—exactly sixty years after the New York premiere—executes every subtle meaning, challenging technicality, and character flaw of the play with rare magnificence.
The actors who recreate this classic piece of American theatre give supreme performances, capturing the essence of our social issues through their tragic struggles as individuals. A DeSales’ theatre professor actually plays the part of the lead character, Willy Loman. Students comprise the rest of the impressive cast, but the anchor of the production is undoubtedly associate professor Wayne S. Turney.
If Turney is as extraordinary a professor as he is an actor, then his students are very lucky. Turney firmly commands the psychological turmoil of his eccentric character. Willy’s every noble ideal, trapped emotion, and slip in memory come to life through Turney’s cultivation.
Besides the off-putting unsteadiness of Willy, audiences immediately feel ill at ease upon glimpsing the set. Drawings of square apartment buildings going back farther than the eye can see cover the stage’s back wall. This use of perspective is underscored by red light illuminating the dreary concrete structures. Moreover, the interior walls and doors of the Lomans’ apartment are also dark: greens, grays and browns. The bed on the left is pink along with the one brightly painted wall of the set, which looks like clouds mixing with the sky at dusk. The roof above the set holding the construction together looks like spider legs, uncanny and frightening with its vertical jagged edges.
The play’s setting is New York City, the heart of the land of equal opportunity. The rough, hard accents of many characters—especially the Loman brothers, Happy (junior David Smith) and Biff (sophomore Jacob R. Dresch)—reflect the uncompromising struggle of the life they experience there. Biff’s disillusionment over his failure to make something of himself in the business world manifests the true nature of capitalism and in turn also sharpens the tragic circumstance of Willy’s demise.
Willy ran for so long on just “a smile and a shoeshine.” He wanted to be respected, known and well-liked. The downfall of his career, shattering his pride and his hopefulness, leads to Willy’s temper tantrums and mind lapses. While his heart is in the right place, his brain is constantly returning to the past.
These changes in Willy’s perception are ushered in fluidly: the dreary blue hues of reality gradually brighten into golden lights and the music of a gentle, peculiar flute begins to play. In Willy’s visions of the past, there are no more boundaries such as the confining walls of the present: characters expand the claustrophobic space by walking through the kitchen wall into the yard.
Willy both enters and leaves the play in his car, which is appropriate considering how many hours and how many thousands of miles he spent over the course of his life in that lonely little transit box. When he walks onto the stage for the first time, Willy’s brown suit is made blood red by the faint lights above him. Menacing music, consisting of sad trills of the flute and daunting bass chords of a piano, accompanies Willy as he walks into his house. Whether this entrance was meant to be a device to ultimately foreshadow Willy’s similarly-orchestrated departure is up to the audience’s discretion.
Unlike the final act, however, the first act is full of comedy. Sometimes bumbling, sometimes boisterous, the imbalanced discussions between Willy and his wife, Linda (senior Victoria Rose Bonito) peppered the audience’s absorption of the exposition with laughter. While subjects jumped from their children to whipped cheese to the maddeningly cramped apartment buildings, the actors’ portrayals allowed the audience to see themselves or their parents in these characters.
Enraged in the final act, Linda—the only balanced, patient character in the house—mesmerizes the audience while she confronts her sons over their ignorance and ingratitude toward their father. Bonito’s dynamic transformation from quaking and sweet-tempered to protective and fiercely loyal electrifies the production.
Dresch gives a soulful representation of Biff, propelling the story with impressive physicality. In Willy’s flashbacks he’s an eager, confident young football player with a bounce in his step and potential in his future; in the play’s present, he’s a lost adult, fighting to swallow his disgust at the flattery and falsity engulfing “civilized” society—and his father.
After the revelation in Willy’s most violent, debilitating flashback, the audience witnesses the last moments the family spends together. Biff breaks down, trying valiantly, but futilely, to force his family to see the folly of their self-deluded, self-aggrandizing existences.
Since the play is spun from Willy’s web of regrets, guilt, fallacy and undying hope, the true test of a production is how successfully his conscience is brought to life. DeSales University’s production of “Death of a Salesman” triumphs in this endeavor through its masterful lighting, set design, music, and—most importantly—immensely talented actors.