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Death of a Salesman

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The recent memorial marking the 25th anniversary of the Challenger disaster serves as a reminder that the American dream does not always reach its promised heights. Recent economic events come closer to home for many American families, who find their own dreams falling far short of promise.

American playwright Arthur Miller specialized in up-close-and-personal stories that revealed the limitations of our collective cultural expectations. The most familiar, Death of a Salesman, debuted in 1949, when America was in recovery from World War II and the nation and its people were optimistic about the future. The warriors were home. Many families were moving into their first homes; babies were booming and the world was puddle-wonderful. So, what was with this play that depicted an ordinary figure, a working class guy, and his all-American family in such tragic light?

Miller delivered a double-dose of come-down-to-earth reality with his interpretation (some might say "warning") of the inevitable crash when dreams and actualities meet head-on. The Old Globe Theatre's current sympathetic production confirms the concept that dramatic tragedy, well-written and skillfully produced, exactingly directed and elegantly presented, need not be time-specific. This is a story of a family and each of its individual members believing in a cultural illusion that destroys them. It is a fable of life, love and loyalty. It is also a tale of fractured fantasies.

In this deceptive world, there are no heroes, but Willy Loman, 60, self-described "well-liked" salesman, focuses the action and the interpretation. In Willy World, hard work and a joke will win over a limp handshake and a solemn demeanor every time.

Jeffrey DeMunn becomes Willy in an Our Town character, traversing the jaw-dropping enthusiasm of a cheerleading dad and the wretchedness of defeated patriarch as if the tunnel between extremes were a mere burrow. Willy is a character so intricately balanced in his vulnerability that less than an accomplished and empathetically wrought actor could make a caricature from a portrait. DeMunn's Willy simply means what he means, even when he succumbs to loneliness on the road with a beautiful buyer (a stunning Jordan Baker executing an  uncomfortably accurate sugar pie). Willy's interpretation of life is both a joy, when life agrees, and a regret, when it does not.

Dreams are not solely cultural. Dreams are personal. Willy does not understand that, and his downfall destroys his family and the people in it. Like a plummeting spaceship and an increasing foreclosure rate, it threatens our own optimistic perspective of life as we want it to be.

If only the focus could have been on a steadfast touchstone like Linda, Willy's long-suffering, predictive wife. "...life is a casting off," she says. "It's always that way." Intricately wrought by Robin Moseley, Linda contains a deeper understanding of the "way it is," pragmatically working the family budget and the masculine dynamic with a vulnerable balance. Moseley's Linda embodies the 1950's female ideal, unwaveringly supportive of the male hierarchy, yet ruling the roost from the well-kept nest.

In those heady times, home ownership could be only a few payments away, and the legacy of a fully paid off dwelling was, perhaps, reachable. Marion Williams' set design of the Loman home reproduces Jo Mielziner's representational, functional original, cleverly adapting it to the round stage. Although the actors' movements from mind to reality and present to past take a bit of getting used to, Williams' imagery ultimately conquers the smallish stage.

Without walls, the playwright's familial ideal blasts through this play. Considering the era and the return of women to the home from their former positions in manufacturing, the sentiment of role division and constancy echoed the country's consciousness. At last, the feminine aura was back in the home and kitchen, where it belonged. Gender roles were defined, and all was as it should be.

Without the backdrop of the latter 1940's American (and this play's on-stage) family, however, the meaning would be lost. The elder son, Biff (a sentient and precisely angry Lucas Caleb Rooney) embraces his father's dream for him. In the beginning, when Biff leads his football team and his small town cadre of supporters, the fantasy seems destiny. But a disgrace changes the fragile psyche of the boy whose goals are merely adopted, and Biff must confront demons that defy dreams.

Therefore, opportunity opens for Biff's younger brother Happy "Hap," (Tyler Pierce) who could maneuver his way into his father's good graces, if only he were not so intent upon proving his masculine prowess. Pierce walks the tightrope waltzed by the second-born son with a combination of humor and sang-froid that highlights the futility of believing in an illusion. Hap is a more tragic figure than even Biff or Willy because he continues to believe that his father's dream, and his increased role in it, will come true.

Willy's own dream anchors in his elder brother's success and his own missed opportunity to join Ben's adventures. Perhaps familiar to anyone who has declined to make a purchase or accept an offer, this subplot of disparate fortunes predicts a life-long regret.

Personified in the character of Willy's friend's son, Bernard (authentically and compassionately played by Ben Diskant), the potential for a son's ascendency rises above mundane fortune. The nerdy, unpopular Bernard becomes the high salaried success. What Willy cannot fathom is why he became such a pinnacle of success, leaving the popular, athletic Biff in his hometown wake. What happened? Willy wonders. The answer is too complex and too ethereal to ascribe to an accident of fate.

This production's little blunder concerns Ben's Colonel Sanders persona. Although Willy's big brother is larger than life in the younger's mind, and Adrian Sparks' grand stature fits the bill, Mathew J. LeFebvre's costume misses the mark. Ben arrives from the African diamond mines, not from America's deep South, so the beard, mustache and white suit with plantation hat does not fit. This unfortunate outfit creates a distraction.

Another awkward diversion is the rubber pipe that Biff slaps on the kitchen table. Willy looks at it but never picks it up. Miller's stage directions do not address the lingering prop, but it would be better to make it disappear somehow than to leave it there, magnetizing the audience.

Considering Pam Mackinnon's meticulous direction and her cast's magnificent interpretations, those little detractions are as simple dust in a grand scheme. If only Willy Loman could have had precise foresight. That fantasy was not to come true.

In the end, ( labeled "Requiem" in Miller's script) it is Willy's only true friend, Charley (a perfectly constant John Procaccino) who understands the meaning of the man and his situation. "A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory," he says.

And so it is. The dream looms large for the country of Miller's vision, and its vision seems as grand for the individual. The warning does not diminish the American dream, in space or in life.

"Death of a Salesman" continues on the Old Globe Theatre's Sheryl and Harvey White stage through Feb. 27. Performance times: Tues-Weds at 7 p.m.; Thurs-Sat at 8 p.m.; Sun at 7 p.m. Matinees Sat-Sun at 2 p.m. Additional matinee on Feb. 16 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $29-67, with discounts for full-time students, patrons 29 and younger, seniors and groups. Reservations at www.TheOldGlobe.org or by phone at 619-23-GLOBE.

 

Spotlight

Laguna Playhouse Announces Ellen Richard as its Interim Executive Director

May 3, 2016…Laguna Beach, Calif…Laguna Playhouse Board of Directors announced today that, later this month, Ellen Richard will be joining Laguna Playhouse as its Interim Executive Director. The Playhouse announced late last year that it was undertaking a national search guided by Arts Consulting Group (ACG) for an Executive Director to succeed Karen Wood who had held this position for the past eight years.

Commenting on the appointment Joe Hanauer and Paul Singarella, Co-Chairmens of the Board of Directors, said “In the midst of our search we encountered this wonderful opportunity to engage Ellen while we continue to seek appropriate long-term leadership. To have found someone with the extraordinary qualifications that Ellen has is thrilling. She is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer at New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company where she was Managing Director. Ellen also has strong successes in supervising the construction of theatres in New York and also in San Francisco at the American Conservatory Theater, a rare and valuable skill set considering the contemplated major remodel and expansion of the Laguna Playhouse.” Laguna Playhouse Artistic Director Ann E. Wareham adds, “We are pleased and proud to have Ellen Richard, truly a rock-star in our field, join us as our interim Executive Director who will help guide the Playhouse during this transition.” Comments Ellen Richard, “I have quickly grown fond of Laguna Beach and the Playhouse. I embrace this extraordinary opportunity to join one of the country’s top regional theatres at this time in its remarkable 95-year history. I look forward to helping the Playhouse and working with their incredible Board of Trustees and Ann E. Wareham.”

ABOUT ELLEN RICHARD

Ellen Richard served as Executive Director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco from 2010 through 2015.  During her tenure, Ms. Richard negotiated a deal to buy the Strand Theater in tech corridor of Mid-Market San Francisco, helped raise the $34,000 million to renovate and operate it and steered the design and construction for the project which opened in May of 2015. The complex featured two performance spaces and has won multiple awards.  She opened the 50 seat Costume Shop Theater, a 49-seat “black box” venue used for the company’s Master of Fine Arts students and for shows by other local companies.  Ms. Richard was also credited with expanding the company’s educational efforts, coming up with programs like the San Francisco Semester, which brings undergraduate acting students to ACT from around the world, and Stage Coach, a community theater mobile unit that reaches into diverse neighborhoods

She was also Executive Director of The Second Stage Theatre in New York City. During her tenure at Second Stage, which began in 2006 (through 2009), she was responsible for the purchase contract of the Helen Hayes Theatre, growth in subscription income of 48 percent, and growth in individual giving of 75 percent, as well as conceptualization of a highly successful gala format and “Second Generation,” a giving program through which donors enable deserving New York City youth to experience live theater. Under Ms. Richard’s leadership, Second Stage provided the initial home for the Broadway productions Everyday Rapture, Next to Normal, and The Little Dog Laughed.

From 1983 to 2005, Ms. Richard enjoyed a rich and varied career with Roundabout Theatre Company. The Roundabout that Ms. Richard joined was a small nonprofit theater company in bankruptcy. By the time she departed as Managing Director, Roundabout had become one of the country’s largest and most successful theater companies of its kind, with net assets in excess of $67 million dollars. Ms. Richard is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer, for Roundabout productions of Cabaret (1998), A View from the Bridge (1998), Side Man (1999), Nine (2003), Assassins (2004), and Glengarry Glen Ross (2005). As producer of more than 125 shows at Roundabout, she had direct supervision of all management and marketing functions. She created Roundabout’s “Theatre-PLUS” programs, which include singles, teachers, family, gay and lesbian, wine tasting, and the 7 p.m. “Early Curtain” series, all of which grew to represent more than 10 percent of Roundabout’s 40,000 subscribers.

As director of design and construction at Roundabout, Ms. Richard was responsible for more than $50 million of theater construction for 11 projects. She conceptualized the three permanent Roundabout stages — The Broadway venues of Studio 54 and the American Airlines Theatre, and the Off-Broadway venue The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre She directed the location search for Cabaret and oversaw the creation of the production’s environmental Kit Kat Klub. Prior to her tenure at Roundabout, Ms. Richard served as business manager of Westport Country Playhouse, theater manager for Stamford Center for the Arts, and business manager for Atlas Scenic Studio. She began her career working as a stagehand, sound designer, and scenic artist assistant.