A remount of Soulpepper's 2010 production proves we're still buying the sad story of the Loman family.
Some plays are considered classics because they represent a period, because they’re an eloquent and meaningful snapshot of a particular time and place that can be relived again and again with every new production. They can be modernized through sets and costumes, but they’re rooted in the era in which they were created. Arthur Miller’s 1949 tragedy Death of a Salesman is not one of those plays.
Yes, Soulpepper’s current production (a remount of the highly praised 2010 show, with only one major new cast member) boasts mid-century business suits, housecoats, Letterman sweaters, and sweater vests, even antique refrigerators and a recording device the size of a small Labrador. In that way, it oozes with the late 1940s and early 1950s—but Salesman has an uncanny ability to update itself to suit any (North American, at least) location, year, or economic setting.
Joseph Ziegler, returning to his 2011 Dora Award–winning role as the failing patriarch of the Loman family, Willy, considers the play “virtually perfect” in that there isn’t any information about the Lomans missing from the dialogue or the stage directions. Director Albert Schultz wisely lets the script do the major lifting, save for a few heavy-handed sound cues close to the end of the show. Subtle lighting cues by Bonnie Beecher take us seamlessly from the past to the present and back again, and a sparse set by Lorenzo Savoini allows the audience to literally see behind closed doors into the embarrassing torment of a family on the brink of falling apart.
For those unfamiliar with the story, Willy Loman is an aging traveling salesman, his health depleting along with his wits and the bank account he shares with his ever-supportive wife Linda. When we enter the scene, both of their sons are staying at home. Biff, the elder one, has come home once again after working on a ranch. Happy, the younger, who has an apartment and a job at a department store, is visiting while his big bro is in town. Family members are toxic to each other, but bound by love. Willy and Biff argue, Linda scolds her sons for abandoning their father, and Happy struggles to keep everyone calm by playing into his father’s fantasies. Willy’s mind slips in and out the present—going back to the good old days when he and Biff were a team and the world was theirs for the taking—leaving Linda, Biff, and Happy to make some kind of sense of the present, and a paper-thin plan for the future.
With simple directorial choices to support the strength of the script, Ziegler as Willy, Nancy Palk as Linda, Ari Cohen as Biff and (newcomer to this production) Mike Ross as Happy are able to relish in the rich parts Miller has offered them. Through them, we experience their dysfunctional family dynamics, the disappointment of unfulfilled potential, jealousy, pride, the need to be liked, the hope that something better is just around the corner. These are the themes that continually propel Death of a Salesman through the years, and will always justify the play as “relevant” as long as they, much like the former football star Biff, don’t get bogged down by lofty goals, high expectations, and overly ambitious ideas. The production is reminiscent of another Soulpepper production on now, The Crucible—and another Miller classic directed by Schultz—in which simple directing choices let the acting and the script carry a powerful and moving message.
At the end of the play-the final blow given away by the title-it feels like the tragic stories of Linda, Biff, and Happy could easily lead to their own individual sequels. Though Linda and Biff start off in a dark place and keep falling into ones that are even darker, in Soulpepper’s production Happy actually comes across as the one most doomed to repeat his father’s footsteps. In a heartbreaking final tableau, he’s still a child in awe of his father, wanting to make him proud. In emphasizing Salesman‘s cyclical nature, it’s possible that with every remount we’re not watching Willy’s demise over and over, but Happy’s as well, and Happy’s own son after that.
But with every hollow and hopeless laugh that Ziegler sputters as an increasingly desperate Willy, he proves why he earned that Dora last year. And this production proves why audiences everywhere are still buying Death of a Salesman.