Stages Shows “Death of a Salesman”

The Stages Theater succeeds in their production of "Death of a Salesman", a controversial play that debuted in 1949 and quickly won a Pulitzer Prize. This review is in two parts; the production and performance of the play, and because the 61 year old play focuses on a topic that is still quite relevant today, there is an analysis of the theme.

The Performance

The play takes you inside the life of Willy Loman (Joe Parrish), an amicable and and friendly salesman living on the East Coast. We meet him arriving home unexpectedly and waking his wife Linda (Cynthia Ryanen). They discuss household interests, emptying-nest-syndrome and the recent visit from their eldest son, Biff (Frank Tryon). But the occasion of his unexpected return is that he has suffered from visions while driving. He describes the vivid daydream which kept him from seeing the road before him. It has left him afraid to drive, which is important for a salesman.

As the lead character Parrish is a thoughtful and considered Loman. The intricacies of his affliction are parceled out like a fine thread that the viewer is left to string together, offhandedly revealed in passing as they would be in real life by such a conflicted character. He progresses through stages in the course of the play, and the only critique I can give is that Parrish shouts from the bottom of his lungs and sometimes seems out of breath before the end of the sentence, but maybe that reflects Loman’s ex-aspirated nature.

Ryanen as Linda intricately portrays a loyal wife advancing in age and complicit in Willy’s delusions. As the vehicular daydreaming becomes symptomatic of a much deeper malady Linda grows stronger in her determination to support Willy’s cause, whatever that may be.

Biff is portrayed as both adult (34) and child by a compelling performance from Frank Tryon. Flashbacks reveal how the young, energetic and lovable boy has matured into a brooding and detached man with daddy issues. The relationship between Willy and Biff is the pivot point around which the rest of the story swings. At first it seems that the story is about Willy’s aspirations for his son and his son’s rejection of them. “Nothing has a stronger influence . . . on their children than the unlived life of the parents”, said the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung.  But why does Biff reject Willy’s unlived life? And why is Willy so determined to have Biff live it?

Before I address the theme of the play I would like to also mention Daniel Hunt who plays Biff’s philandering brother Happy (Hap). Hap’s courting method is goal oriented if not predatory. He lies and presents almost an entire other character to women to achieve his goals, but he get’s nothing from it but bragging rights. He says, “I just keep knocking them over, but it doesn’t mean anything.” Hunt’s portrayal is both slimy and tragic.

The play is held together by the strong performances from the four family characters and supported by talented supporting cast. It was an excellent introduction to this famous play.

The Theme

Indications that there is disorder in Willy’s mind begin early and repeat often. He has difficulty evaluating. At first it seems quaint when WIlly says, “Biff is a lazy bum!” and then seconds later, “There’s one thing about Biff--- he’s not lazy.” But then evaluation becomes the point of discussion when they talk about American versus Swiss cheese, Chevrolet vs. Studebaker, their home vs. the house next door. Then it is conspicuously revealed how they evaluated which refrigerator to purchase, “They got the biggest ads of any of them!” Linda says defending their purchase decision. Later Willy laments that they should have bought a “well-advertised” machine.  He says that his neighbor Charley (Robert Purcell) bought a GE refrigerator 20 years ago and it still works. This highlights the juxtaposition of Charley against Willy. Willy does not trust Charley, and conspicuously and unexplainedly refuses a job from him even when he is broke, but Charley’s choices excel. Willy says one minute that he hopes they didn’t get stuck on the machine (refrigerator), and the next that it’s a fine machine. He makes the same vacillations on everything he evaluates, even his life.

At one point he asks his estranged brother Ben what he should teach his boys to do. His life is a hopeful collage of other people’s half-explained dreams.

Willy’s slippery hold on reality is reflected early in the play by his man-whore son, Hap. Hap enjoys selling his exploits to his listeners but that seems to be the only goal to his actions, which are meaningless in themselves.

We see Willy cutting corners in his perception of reality early in Biff’s life when Biff produces a regulation football to toss around with Hap. He took it from school. His father says, “I want you to take it back”, but in the next sentence is telling Biff that his coach would probably congratulate him on his initiative. Willy is unable to come to a conclusion.

Facts are playthings to Willy, things to sway opinions. Feelings and opinions are all that matters in Willy’s world. He describes how people love him, in the hopes that it will come true. He says, “Be well liked and you will never want.” Later he says, “It’s not what you say, but how you say it.”

He says “I will go to Harvard. I’m very well like in Harvard. You know Linda the problem is people don’t seem to take to me.” Half is what he wishes and half is the bit of reality that has peeked through. At every turn we find that what he’s said is a false memory. He says Biff is doing well in school but later he tells Charley’s son Bernard, “You’ll give him the answers.” Bernard refuses because it’s a state exam, and that’s how we know this has happened before.

At the dinner table he tells Charley, “Don’t insult me. What do you come in here for?” But this is not a demand and a question. It is an imploring for a feeling. It’s a stab and a kick to invoke an emotion. We know this because when the caring Charley replies, “You want me to go?” Willy immediately changes the subject.

The malady that Willy suffers from is that his life is lived second-hand. All his goals are borrowed and all his achievements are told better then they are reached. He experiences life through the dreams of others and lives life through the stories he tells to others. The condition is made most poignant by juxtaposition to  Charley who’s son Bernard is leaving to argue a case in front of the Supreme Court. When Willy finds out he says, “He doesn’t mention it?” Charley replies, “He didn’t have to. He’s doing it!”

Some say this play is an indictment on capitalism, perhaps because they mention many brands and dollar amounts. Even the theater’s promotional material says the play is “Exploring the struggle to define one’s own identity in a world where a man’s worth is defined by his ability to make money.” But these are just some of the evaluations that are made in this play. These evaluations turn out to be the things that make up Willy’s life; the house, car, and water heater they choose, and the stories he buys, and the stories he sells. Willy’s problem is that he sells his stories more than he accounts for them.

I often wondered why Willy never took the job that Charley offered him. Now I think I know. It's because Willy didn't want to do honest work where he actually had to accomplish something, even if it meant more pay and escape from the crushing burden of debt. Charley stands as a signpost, a tent-pole of achievement, not so that he can boast of it, but to enjoy it himself. That is the American Dream.

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