Thursday, May 24, 2007

Death of a Salesman

Willy Loman is living the American dream, the dream of being rich and well liked by lots of people. The problem is that for 60 year old Willy, after years of chasing the dream, it still remains just a dream.

Willy Loman is the central figure in Arthur Miller’s 1949 classic, “Death of a Salesman,” now being presented at the Woodland Opera House, under the direction of Dean Shellenberger. In Patrick Murphy, Shellenberger has found an excellent Willy. He so beautifully plays the complex emotions of a man who is coming to the end of his life, leaving so much undone, yet whose personality will not allow him to admit failure, a man who is beginning to lose his grip on reality and lives much of his life in a dream state, remembering the past, when the dream seemed possible.

Willy tells his sons, Biff (Eric Baldwin) and Happy (David Campfield) that personality is more important than smarts. He explains, "the man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want."

Willy has given up a lot chasing that carrot that always hangs just out of reach. At one point he decides he must buy seeds. "I've got to get some seeds. I've got to get some seeds, right away. Nothing's planted. I don't have a thing in the ground." He talks about retiring and buying a little place in the country where he and his wife Linda (Lydia Venables) can raise chickens.

Despite Willy’s view of his world, the Loman family is a classic dysfunctional family. Biff, the favored son, hit his peak as the high school football star and has never been able to live up to his father’s inflated goals for his son. He blames Willy for telling him that he can do anything, when he is finding the reality quite the opposite. "I realized what a ridiculous lie my whole life has been!"

Baldwin gives a fine performance, bringing out all the bitterness and hopelessness of the character, with a seething anger just under the surface, waiting to explode at his father. "Pop! I'm a dime a dozen, and so are you!" he yells at his father.

"I am not a dime a dozen! I am Willy Loman, and you are Biff Loman!" his father insists.

Hap shares his father’s dream and has tried all his life to live up to the promise that his father found in Biff, but remains the invisible son, nothing quite good enough for his father. Campfield gives a compelling performance as the son who has tried all his life for his father’s recognition.

Lydia Venables is Linda, the woman who tries to hold it all together, who supports her husband and tries to believe his dreams, though she understands the reality of his life. She acts as the referee between Willy and their children. She is a woman who is beaten down by life but who is the soul of the family.

Venables does not inhabit the character consistently. In the earlier scenes one is aware that she is “acting,” saying the roles, following the directions, but it’s not until later that she truly becomes Linda and then her performance is riveting.

There is a mostly strong supporting cast. Greg Collett is Charlie, the next door neighbor who has always been Willy’s friend and who attempts to lend a helping hand when things begin to go sour.

Dan Slauson is Bernard, Charlie’s nerdy son. Micail Buse is Uncle Ben, "The man knew what he wanted and went out and got it! Walked into a jungle, and comes out, the age of twenty-one, and he's rich!" It is Ben, with whom Willy has many imaginary conversations, who is Willy’s excuse for continuing to chase the dream, even as it begins to fade.

Philip Pittman is Howard, who has to let Willy know that his usefulness to the company he has served for all of his career has come to an end.

Early in the play Willy fantasizes about the hoards of people who will come to his funeral, which will show his family how much he is loved. The reality is just the opposite, with just family and neighbors gathered at his gravesite, where it is Hap who vows that his father will not have died in vain and who promises never to let go of the dream.

The audience for opening night was small, which is a shame because this is an excellent production which will wring every ounce of emotion from those who immerse themselves in the action.

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