What They Say It Is:
Arthur Miller’s exploration of the American Dream. Willy Loman is a salesman who dreams of making it as big as his brother, of providing for his family and of having his sons make a better life. But not everything turns out as we hope. Death of a Salesman explores who we want to be, what we want for those around us and how we hope to get there.
This review will focus mostly on my reaction and interpretations of the play, but I would like to begin with a comment on the players.
Curio’s decision to cast real-life husband and wife Paul Kuhn and Gay Carducci in the roles of Mr. and Mrs. Loman (low-man) brought positive results. I can only assume that their real life relationship as husband and wife created the intimacy we witnessed between these two characters–such as Mrs. Loman gently singing Willie to sleep in her arms. We see more of this adorable playfulness in flashbacks to their “salad days” . . . Willie reveling in his high sales and Mrs. Loman calculating his commissions, the good news punctuated with pecks and kisses from her husband. We watch as Mrs. Loman makes the small gestures to accommodate and support her husband–a special item purchased just for him at the grocery -“whipped cheese, I thought you would like to try it”. I’ve got to assume that the real life romance of Gay and Paul intensifies these loving intimacies in the play.
Perhaps this unique connection also lent veracity to Mrs. Loman’s willingness to sacrifice her relationship with her eldest son for the sake of protecting and prolonging her husband’s fantastical world view. Even more profoundly, when the couple is shattered by Willie’s death and Mrs. Loman speaks to him by the grave (“I can’t cry, Willie”) . . . I wondered if Gay were thinking about her real life husband dying in that moment. I believed in her grief—“We were in the clear Willie . . . I made the last payment on the house……”. I could feel her angst as she struggles to understand her loss, musing that death is not his final journey, but feels like “just another sales trip”. Mrs. Loman will wait as she has always done– waiting for him to come home to her. She’s truly a sacrificing soul, this Mrs. Loman, especially considering that she has become an debt-ridden widow with only the fragile (or absent?) support of her sons. Miller may have situated Mrs. Loman as supporting cast in order to focus on the relationship between Biff and her husband . . . but in that final scene, Gay Carducci’s Mrs.Loman steals the show by perfectly conveying such loss and grief.
There were a number of themes throughout this play that resonated with me. Many of these were very fundamental human questions such as: what is important in life? How should a person live their life? What are we living for? How do we regard a capitalist system that crushes the individual spirit, steals our sense of self-worth, and abandons us when we’re no longer useful? What qualities are best to instill in the next generation or embody in our culture? How should we support those who can’t support themselves, how can we aid the lost souls who haven’t figured out who they are, or how do we best encourage those people who simply fear failure? Who is responsible to care for those who can’t care for themselves? Business? Family? Society?
Hap embodies the qualities promoted by his father: pro-business and pro-capitalism. He is boastful, fictionally inflating his prospects and his position at his company. If the reader doesn’t mind me stating it a bit more coarsely, Hap is a womanizing, pompous bullshitter. Based on what we see in the play, Hap has taken all the ‘lessons’ of Willie Loman to heart — being likeable and popular is more important than competence and knowledge. However, the play cleverly allows us to dislike Hap- he embodies Willie’s values, but in a different phase of life. We pity Willie due to his faltering mind and elderly feebleness. But Hap, who is young and vibrant, permits us to judge more harshly, without the guilt that we might feel for picking on the pathetic father. But we should pity Hap too, because–if he fails to heed his brother Biff’s observations about Willie’s way of living—Hap may end up disillusioned, disappointed and even suicidal like his father before him.
In contrast, Biff (the son on whom Willie Loman has projected his greatest expectations) questions a life committed to capitalism. Instead of business or monetary success, Biff focuses on individual happiness, building relationships with others, and low-paying manual labor. Biff, home for a rare visit with his father and mother, fights against the seduction of family lies and self-deceptive routines. Biff struggles to remember and admit his own real-life faults, even as his father spins fantasies of Biff as a reformed prodigal son. Biff is, in reality, lost and confused. He is struggling to decide how he should live his life. We eventually learn that Biff has a compulsion to steal (practice footballs as a youth, graduating to expensive fountain pens and business suits as an adult). It seems as if his thefts never arise from necessity, but instead, from a place of desperation—perhaps as symbolic means of acting against powerful men.
Much like the other major characters, we are meant to pity Biff—a boy who was taught by his father to be vain and shallow, to strive to be “a well-liked, popular person” rather than seeking knowledge or substance (exemplified in his father’s encouragement to concentrate on football, instead of his math studies). And Biff has certainly struggled. He’s seen the disadvantages of thinking like his father and brother. And though Biff loves his mother and father, he cannot reconcile their distorted thinking with his reality. Vainly trying to square the circle, Biff promises his mother that he will stay and support them, only to have his mother ban him from the family when he refuses to play along with Willie’s fantasies. And in the end, we see Biff trying to reach out to his father, to expose his (Biff’s) own failures and begging him to accept him for the man he is, even if this means that Willie must face his own flaws as well. Unfortunately, as we see at the end of the play, Biff’s struggle—at least in relation to his father–is tragically unsuccessful.
Before the curtain falls, we see Willie begging Bernard (the former childhood playmate of his own two boys, now become a successful lawyer) demanding to know “What’s the secret?”. Willie imagines that Bernard—who Willie always regarded as a boring “anemic”—must know some secret formula that has eluded the Loman clan. After all, from Willie’s point of view, Biff was the Popular Son, and was therefore destined for success. Sadly, Willie is so trapped by his own blinding, inescapable fantasies that he cannot understand how could Bernard have found it instead.
Back in my high school and college days, I was never assigned an Arthur Miller piece for any academic purpose, so I made a point to read some of his work in my spare time. I recall liking Death of a Salesman “ok”, but I also remember feeling that the play was a bit longer than the substance matter really required. I absorbed the central points early on (disillusionment with modern life, Willy’s failed sense of purpose and identity, the fictions we tell ourselves in order to avoid confrontation with the Pit) and wondered why Miller’s play meandered on into (what feel like) multiple ending scenes. Perhaps I just don’t have the stomach to watch Willy’s fall in so many stages–like, hey, I get it, no need to belabor the point–the dude is lost, his life is a wash, and he hides from pain by constructing elaborate, whitewashed memories–or maybe I’m just not that interested in the suicide/death denouement (which veers a bit toward the melodramatic, at least to the eyes of a modern viewer).
Whatever the reason, my feelings toward Curio’s live rendition of DoaS struck me in a similar way, with strict reference to the narrative itself. However, I’m pleased to report that Curio’s staging of the show was top notch and well worth my time and money–complaints about the final act notwithstanding. First and foremost, Curio’s Paul Kuhn is a treasure as Loman, carrying the role of the confused, self-deceiving salesman with grace, fury, and aplomb. Tara and I have seen (and admired) many Curio events in which Mr. Kuhn typically acts as the theater’s set designer and/or director, so it was especially interesting to see the troupe’s central figure take the pivotal onstage role. Kuhn moves naturally between Loman’s nostalgic dreaming and occasional unhinged rage. He emulates genuine fondness for his sons and wife (made somewhat easier in that Linda, Loman’s wife, is played by Kuhn’s real life wife), and draws the audience into his imagined plans and memories. In short, Kuhn is highly believable and entertaining as Loman, and caries the show for more than two hours.
If I were to designate a “runner up” best actor award (and I might as well, considering Tara and I are the sole Deciders for this blog), my choice would have to go to Chase Byrd in the role of Happy. Though Happy is less central to the plot than his conflicted brother Biff, Mr. Byrd capably embodies Happy’s oblivious narcissism and his surrender to superficial, escapist decadence. He smiles in the face of his father’s rages, he regards dates with dames as the best possible pleasures, and each night before going to bed, Hap lies to his mother and father, telling them he’s decided to get married, no really, he’s going to. Oddly, one notices that neither parent takes Hap seriously when he lies in such transparent, repetitive fashion–perhaps a consequence of Hap living inside the ficto-bubble with his aging –whereas visiting brother Biff is held to a higher standard…the one reserved for true shining hopes, for those who’ve escaped from Willie’s crumbling kingdom of confused imagination and daily drudgery.
As above, by the time the second act rolled around, the weight of the play’s dark themes were weighing on my soul, and I found myself wishing that the final few scenes might have wrapped up somewhat more quickly. Willie Loman’s pathetic collapse is a long, painful thing to watch over the course of the show’s second hour, so perhaps my own endurance for brutal sadness had just run out before the show was ready to be finished. However, Curio’s faithfulness to the source material is to be admired, as is the troupe’s unquestionable ability to invest a familiar show with such a high degree of theatrical excellence–all of it on a small stage and a humble budget.