A cellist strikes up in pizzicato as an older man, dressed in the fashion of the late ‘40s, shambles onstage at the Julia Morgan Center, gazing out above the audience as if down the road—or into the past. A crowd forms, staring at him—and disperses. A woman’s voice is heard, calling his name. “I’m tired to the death!” And Willy Loman, brilliantly rendered by Corey Fisher, is home again, in Traveling Jewish Theatre’s remarkable version of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.
As Willy and his wife, Linda (Jeri Lee Cohen as a steady foil to Fisher’s Willy), talk about Willy’s abrupt return soon after departing on a New England sales trip, as well as the constant nag of payments on house, car, appliances, all bought on time—and about family: the return of ne’er-do-well son Biff from a stint wandering the West—the mood shifts constantly, from apprehension over Willy’s driving to a quick memory of peacefulness, to an admonition from Linda about his too-apparent disapproval of Biff. “I said he’s not making money. Is that criticism?” Willy replies.
He is lost in revery, as the audience too is caught up in his quickly intercut visions and fantasies, memories of the past. The mention of his older brother Ben’s death triggers an apparition (Julian Lopez-Morillas, a presence as ironic as Hamlet’s father’s ghost) and a refrain, “When I was 17 I walked into the jungle; when I was 21 I walked out—and by God I was rich!”
Ben’s hurried shade, always rushing off—as life itself seems to rush away from Willy—becomes a surrogate, a kind of trumped up co-dependent for the suicidally depressed, broken-down old salesman, an auto-suggestive confidant and executor. Ben also reminds Willy of their wayward father, a flautist and roving handyman, both free on the road Willy’s married to.
The opposite of Ben’s specter is Charley, next door, (a playful yet direct Louis Parnell), and his nerdy son Bernard (Zac Jaffe, who modulates the ages of his part very well), “liked, but not well-liked,” another refrain. Charley is Willy’s true mainstay—and Willy rankles at his kidding and at his very decency, until finally admitting Charley’s his only friend, and how strange that is. Bernard is the only peer who both challenges and cares for Biff.
Biff (starry-eyed, slack-jaw Michael Navarra) and brother Hap (scrappy John Sousa) keep mixing it up with the women (Meghan Doyle and Juliet Strong, both sharp in dual roles as chippies and secretaries) and with their thwarted dreams, their gags, their sparring. Biff, exasperated with self-consciousness, is leading the life Willy pines for (”If I’d only gone with my brother Ben to Alaska!”), only to earn the opprobrium of his parents: “Ah, go out to the West and be a cowboy; enjoy yourself!” says Willy, and Linda says, “You can’t look around all your life ... a man is not a bird to come and go with the springtime.”
“Look at the moon, moving between the buildings!” exclaims Willy, in bed with Linda before slipping off into delusion and disaster. “It takes so little to make him happy,” she tells the boys. But “let go” by his dilettante employer, young Howard (a smarmy Danny Webber, doting on his wire recorder, touting it to Willy as a way to get the maid to record radio programs a busy socialite must miss), Willy is beyond both sadness and happiness, rapt in his passion, oblivious as he walks the line down the road that runs downstage through the middle of Giulio Perrone’s splendid, spare set.
The mood swings of Willy and his family are the pivot, in Aaron Davidman’s excellent directorial conception, for the true theatrics of the play, reflecting Miller’s innovations as a former radio playwright adapting the multiplex style of the medium to the live stage. Jim Cave’s spot-on timing with lights and sound design by Rex Camphuis (also production manager) and cellist Jessica Ivry’s original music help deliver the goods to this audience, which is on three sides of the action, up on stage left and right as well as in the orchestra section in front. Few productions ever get the humor, the lyricism (which Miller would hauntingly refer to), the synthesis of approaches that catches up the social, the psychological, the moral, the sheerly pathetic content up into a vortex that sways back and forth until, as Antonin Artaud said of Euripides’ tragedies, “the floodgates are open ... and we don’t know any more just where we are.”
There’s been much talk of Traveling Jewish’s intention to make this a Jewish show with a Jewish Willy Loman. The notes in the program recall the Yiddish theater translation and production of 1951, with a review speaking of that show “bringing the play ‘home’ ... [catching] Miller [son of immigrant Jews], as it were, in the act of changing his name.”
True to their principle of being inspired by Jewish experience, Traveling Jewish has fashioned less a tragic look back at the Jewish diaspora in America than a true, multifaceted revelation of American experience through a Jewish perspective. “I still feel kind of temporary about myself,” says Willy. It opens up speculation as to other representatives of assimilated cultures being seen in the chief roles. Jackie Gleason, for instance, regarded more highly as a dramatic actor than as a comedian by the likes of Orson Welles and others, might have made a great Brooklyn Irish (or German-Irish) Willy Loman.
Because this production’s accents, inflexions and mannerisms give this monumental play a different and fascinating texture, a new syncopation of street and domestic rhythms, it is a truly New York City Death of a Salesman—Manhattan-born Arthur Miller brought home.
DEATH OF A SALESMAN
Presented by the Traveling Jewish Theater at 8 p.m. Thursdays—Saturdays and at 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays through June 10 at the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts. 2640 College Ave.