Arts Listings

‘Death of a Salesman’ plays at Altarena Playhouse By Ken Bullock Special to the Planet

Tuesday March 28, 2006

“We’re free and clear, Willy. Did you hear me? Free and clear!” 


“The problem with most productions of Death of a Salesman,” opined a theater-savvy friend, “is that it’s become an instant American classic—just add water and stir! With all those expectations of immediate gratification, there’s not much room to maneuver.” 

On my way into the Altarena Playhouse’s intimate theater, I saw the setup was for in-the-round . . . a tough way to present a show that’s all over the map, in a different sense. Another challenge to maneuvering: half the audience always at your back. 

If there’s something that typifies most productions of Arthur Miller’s most famous play, it’s either slippage—a lack of focus—or too much focus, exclusively on the lead role, or on some social or psychological conception of What It All Means, leaving out the rest of this problematic text that’s at once intimate and sprawling. 

“Miller almost titled this enduring play—In His Head—and that is where I hope to take you this evening,” writes director Sue Trigg in her program notes, “into the inner workings . . . of his lost hopes, his delusions and a family that has to lie to live up to both . . . to avoid being labeled by society as failures.” 

Most productions are thick with an emotional haze emanating from brooding characters: an off-balance suicidal Willy, unwittingly playing the sycophant, the martinet, the fool, and Biff, his Golden Boy gone bad, simmmering with resentment, on the verge of his next explosion.  

Perhaps because of her background of training at LAMDA, one of Britain’s finest theater schools, director Trigg dwells less on the psycho-sociological backstory than on the very rapid changes the script demands of an ensemble working closely together, in tight, almost musical timing. 

Willy’s constant reveries are immediately juxtaposed with the rather banal events that lead up to the climax of his tragedy—of obsolescence and self-deception, of wanting to be loved, for any reason or none at all. It was Miller’s innovation, a dramatic movement that is less cinematic than an adaptation of the techniques of storytelling he mastered as a scriptwriter for radio. 

The Altarena players perfectly articulate these often lightning-fast changes of mood and tone, and even, seemingly, narrative direction, and the rest falls into place. It’s the most coherent production of Death of a Salesman I can remember seeing—and one of the few that leaves room for the contrapuntal humor and irony necessary to make the play qualify for what it is always claimed to be: a tragic play. 

There’s a great deal that’s problematic, as well as brilliant, about Miller’s masterpiece: the utter banality of the lives portrayed and the manner in which Miller often portrays them, which seems at times to contradict the lofty claims made for it as a stage complement of that elusive creature, the Great American Novel. 

There’s also a good deal of explaining that salts the raw tableaux of personal, professional and familial dysfunctionality. Orson Welles once complained that Miller wrote like a moralizing professor. Indeed, many productions telegraph a certain fussiness of mounting, or a sense of grim solemnity, of admiration of a verdigris-stained monument that stands for self-evident truths.  

The Altarena production is both refreshing and thought-provoking. Images and perceptions loom out of the web of complicated interchanges as if they’re new and previously unperceived. It’s the true representation of a complex set of relationships—that of a man who’s failing, of a family fallen apart—and of a society pushing on, while pushing off its stragglers. 

The cast of 13 acquits itself very well, especially its principals. Chris Chapman is a Willy whose moods have come loose and can turn on a dime to show his wandering mind. Chris Ratti’s Biff is more hang-dog, self-deprecating and even whimsical than resentful, making his explosiveness more telling. 

David Koppel is a sanguine Happy, the “philandering bum” of a brother, always supportive and in denial. Koppel, the sole Equity actor in the cast, provides solid support in a crucial role. The brothers must play themselves as teenagers in Willy’s wayward recollections, and do so very well. Elinor Bell is admirable as Linda, the wife and mother of the Loman clan, a role that’s difficult, demanding great discretion. 

Stephen Steiner gives Willy’s neighbor, foil, and benefactor Charlie a light touch. Charlie and his son, Bernard (hazed by the Loman boys; well-portrayed by Eric O’Kelly), are the only two characters who are both successful and decent, as well as sympathetic and insightful.  

And Jonathan Ferro does justice to Willy’s boss, scion of the company’s founder, Howard Wagner, often portrayed as a nouveau-riche buffoon but here more as thoughtless, self-absorbed, and unable to handle Willy’s troubles and capriciousness. As Willy’s fabled brother and “super-ego” Ben, Steve Schwartz is ideal, an insouciant and prepossessingly self-dramatizing apparition. 

Willy’s constant clutching at Ben, begging him to stay and talk of their father, whom Willy barely recalls, only results in the “news” that he played flute, which Yahui Cathy Yang performs as well, linking and shading the tumbling vignettes in this rapidly shifting tragedy of the disparity between what’s outside and within. Death of a Salesman is playing its final two weekends on High Street, on the island of Alameda—a fine tribute to Arthur Miller, following his death last year. 


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