Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman is one of those plays that most people feel they know inside and out, whether they've actually seen the play or not. Nearly 60 years old now, the play has rooted itself into the soil of the American psyche and, like Gone with the Wind, The Grapes of Wrath and To Kill a Mockingbird, its lines, characters and themes are now passed along by a kind of cultural osmosis. Though it is a play that has, in part, defined America and the American dream, there is also a palpable sadness and yearning to the play that is bigger than geography; Willy Loman, the salesman of the title, has a uniquely American perspective, but his fractured heartache is universally recognizable and relatable.
The theater lover in me—the one who believes that theater is important because it reveals the beating heart and soul of the culture that created it—hopes that everyone will see Death of a Salesman at least once in their lives. If Sixth Street Playhouse's new production, much hyped in the last few months for its casting of television actor Daniel Benzali as Willy Loman, is the one Salesman you see, then, as Loman himself might say, you won't be doing too bad at all.
Willy Loman is an aging salesman (what he sells is never made clear) whose career is now a fraction of what it once was. Barely making a living, Willy, whose grasp of reality has always been tentative, now spends his days slipping in and out of the past, still desperately dreaming of the riches and popularity he believes are the due of every hard-working American. His wife, Linda (Tori Truss, achingly honest and pulsing with surprise reactions), has begun to suspect that Willy's frequent car accidents are actually failed suicide attempts, and is worried about her two sons.
Happy (Michael Navarra) is a shallow imitation of his father, hoping to achieve his dad's dreamed-of wealth and success, not by working hard but by maneuvering into the path of opportunity, seducing the fiancées of his rivals as sport. Biff (Tim Kniffin) has recently returned home after years away in Texas, a mysterious disappearance that has alienated him from his family. A one-time high school football hero, Biff was expected to be the one who achieved the fame and fortune Willy's always longed for, but a tendency toward kleptomania and a resistance to his father's endless dreaming has sent him on a different course, and his unannounced return home—poorly timed, it turns out—threatens to tear apart whatever remains of Willy Loman's decimated self-esteem.
Confidently and sensitively directed by Sheri Lee Miller, making visually appealing use of David Lear's moody, multileveled frame-work set, Arthur Miller's poetic eulogy to skewed values is well-served by the entire production, particularly in the acting, the strength of which goes way beyond Benzali, who, all hype aside, is truly magnificent, especially in the devastating second act. You can almost hear his heart crack and his sanity rip away like Velcro from his mind.
Even the small-part supporting cast delivers, with beautifully detailed performances by a knowingly watchful John Craven as Charlie, Willy's successful next-door neighbor and only friend; a slightly menacing Eric Burke as Willy's late entrepreneur brother Ben, appearing only in dream sequences and flashbacks; Jeff Coté, all exasperated condescension as Willy's boss Howard; Gina Rose Tiso, nailing the superficial aggression of Willy's abrasive one-time mistress; Chris Ginesi in a richly above-and-beyond performance as Stanley, a talkative, good-hearted waiter, who knows how to handle Willy better than anyone else; and Mark Bradbury in an expertly arced performance as Charlie's bookworm son Bernard, whom we see as a nerdy brainiac in flashbacks, and then see as the confident, successful lawyer he has become.
What is particularly clear in this production is that Willy Loman's mistake is not his belief in the American dream; it's his interpretation of that dream that dooms him. Willy believes that by being liked, a person will become successful. In America, to be liked, and well-liked, one has to become successful first.
'Death of a Salesman' runs Thursday&–Sunday through Oct. 26 at the Sixth Street Playhouse. Thursday&–Saturday at 8pm; Sunday at 2pm; also Saturday at 2pm. 52 W. Sixth St., Santa Rosa. $14&–$26. 707.523.4185.
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