Thursday, March 09, 2006

Death of a Salesman

Last month, eight Nebraska meatpackers took a chance on a dream, plunked down money for the Powerball Lottery, and won the biggest jackpot in U.S. History.

The rise in popularity of insanely large lotteries, reality shows with millions of dollars in cash at the end of the road, and Internet get-quick schemes shows that the dream of the good life is as alive today as it was for Willy Loman in 1949 when Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” first debuted on Broadway. The UC Davis production, under the direction of Kent Nicholson, now playing on the Main Stage, will feel as up to date with today’s struggling families as it did to audiences nearly 50 years ago.

Tom McCauley, a working actor for more than 30 years, and now an MFA candidate, is an excellent choice for the role of Willy Loman, who has worked as a traveling salesman all of his life, but now, at 60, is wearing down and trying to decide how he’s going to support his family. McCauley has perfectly captured the look of a man beaten down by life, a little frightened of what lies ahead, but still trying to keep his dreams alive. Despite his disappointments in life, Willie takes pride in two things: First, his ability to make friends, and the host of friends he has made throughout his career (“I realized that selling was the greatest career a man could want. ’Cause what could be more satisfying than to be able to go, at the age of eighty-four, into twenty or thirty different cities, and pick up a phone, and be remembered and loved and helped by so many different people?”).

Willy’s second pride is the accomplishments of his oldest son Biff (Matt Rapore), former high school football star, who Willy is convinced is going to take the professional world by storm.

Biff’s problem is that he can’t possibly live up to Willy’s grandiose fantasies for him. He never received his high school diploma and has been fired from every job he’s held. All he really wants is to move out west and work with his hands. Rapore was off to a slow start as Biff, but as his confidence grew, he gave a powerful performance. The final showdown between Biff and Willy, is skillfully handled by both actors.

In the shadow of his brother is Happy Loman (Michael Yost), who shares Willy’s inflated image of his own importance and questionable moral choices. Yost is makes the audience feel Happy’s frustrating attempts to get his father to notice him.

Lisa Klein is Linda Loman, Willy’s long-suffering wife. Linda is the stereotypical wife of the 40s, taking care of her husband’s needs, supporting his dreams, but with her own frustrations. She mostly suffers in silence and it is her emotional strength which keeps the family together, until things finally explode beyond her ability to control them.

Matt Sullivan is Charlie, Willie’s next door neighbor, who owns a successful business and whose son Bernard ®. Andrew Hess) is a successful lawyer, who has always regarded Biff as his hero.

Willy’s boss, Howard Wagner (Dan Hakim) is a young man whom Willy has known since he was a baby, but Wagner regards Willy with condescension and when Willy goes to him, hoping for a change in his work conditions and perhaps an advance on his salary so he can pay the insurance bill, Wagner fires him.

Willy is losing his grip on reality, and his life seems to be played in the here and now, and in flashbacks to Biff’s glory days and to the days when his wealthy older brother Ben (John Crosthwaite), who recently died, was still alive.

Lighting designer Daniel Goldin uses cool tones for the “here and now” and warm tones for Willy’s flashbacks.

Scenic Designer, Martin Flynn has built a massive, functional set with a colorful backdrop showing the cramped neighborhood in which the Lomans live, and a multi-level house where the action can easily move from bedroom to kitchen to hotel.

In his director’s notes, Kent Nicholson points out that, like Willy Loman, many of us are embracing a system bent on destroying us. “Today there is a cultural obsession to get ahead no matter who we leave behind.”

We have not learned much in the past nearly 50 years. We are, most of us, still Willy Loman, trying to make it in a world that seems determined to keep beating us down.

Willy took comfort in the knowledge that if he had no money to show for his lifetime, at least he had a wealth of friends. The ultimate irony was that the only people at his funeral were his family and his one close friend.

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