How does one breathe life into 1949 Pulitzer Prize Winning classic that may have been read by many and whose story is well known? How do you preserve the curiosity among the audience, to want more, about boring life of an elderly man that ends on a tragic note and the title has already given away the mystery? Answer is simple. With the finest cast (Randall King as Willy Loman, Lucinda Hitchcock Cone as Linda Loman, Jeffrey Brian Adams as Happy, and Danny Jones as Biff) giving it all, under a visionary and seasoned director, Kenneth Kelleher. San Jose Stage Company has revived this iconic piece in a way that is nothing short of remarkable.
Arthur Miller’s masterpiece “Death of a Salesman” is a thought-provoking, insightful, and timeless classic, centered around the life of Willy Loman, a salesman pursuing big dreams for himself and his two sons, Happy and Biff. Loman is exhausted from making ends meet, from his life on the road. But he says, “Tell you a secret, boys. Don’t breathe it to a soul. Someday I’ll have my own business, and I’ll never have to leave home any more”. And he assures his wife, Linda, of Biff’s potential greatness, “Certain men just don’t get started till later in life. Like Thomas Edison, I think. Or B.F. Goodrich. One of them was deaf. I’ll put my money on Biff.” But after 34 years of being on the road as a salesman, Loman is cast aside. Bitter and angry he tells his boss, “You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away – a man is not a piece of fruit.”
Living a lie has become such an integral aspect of Willy Loman’s life that it has cascaded down into the family. Happy lies about being an assistant buyer instead of telling his family that he is much lower down on the totem pole. Happy also proudly claims that “respectable” women cannot resist him and he claims to have seduced the fiancees of three executives and to have “ruined” them for their husbands. Linda Loman cannot bear to confront her husband about his depression and his plans to kill himself that she has secretly discovered. While her deep loyalty and concern for her husband’s well being generates compassion, she fails to understand what impact it has on her children. The impact on Biff is the most interesting and complex. On one hand, falsely encouraged by his father to excel in sports, at the cost of his studies, Biff is gravely influenced by Willy Loman. Biff has incorporated tendencies to exaggerate and manipulate reality in his favor, and has developed an unshakable habit of petty thefts. On the other hand, Biff is acutely aware of the cost of Willy’s life long tendency to deny reality and he tries to confront and revolt against his father, often without success as his brother and his mother intervene to protect Willy Loman’s world view.
The tragedy of Willy Loman’s life is all the more distressing because he is a salesman by vocation. When Willy complains to his friend and neighbor about his boss whom Willy had named when he was a baby, just fires him, Charley says, “Willy, when’re you gonna realize that them things don’t mean anything? You named him Howard, but you can’t sell that. The only thing you got in this world is what you can sell. And the funny thing is that you’re a salesman, and you don’t know that”. Ironically, one can’t succeed as a salesman, if one can’t learn to ignore the reality at least a little and if one can’t remain optimistic when doors are closed shut in the face.
In the end, while the audience may cry with Linda Loman’s inconsolable grief, it is Charley who best sums up the need for understanding and compassion for Willy Loman, as he consoles Willy’s son. “Nobody dast blame this man. You don’t understand: Willy was a salesman. And for a salesman, there’s no rock bottom to the life. He don’t put a bolt to a nut, he don’t tell you the law or give you medicine. He’s a man way out their in the blue riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back- that’s an earthquake. And then you get yourself a couple spots on your hat and your finished. Nobody dast blame this man. A salesman is got to dream boy, it comes with the territory”. This is an absolute classic and at San Jose Stage, it was classically performed and got the respect this great piece of literature deserved. What a great theater season! I also select Death of a Salesman at San Jose Stage, www.thestage.org as must-watch-play of this theater season. It is running at The Stage till April, 23. Get your tickets today; it is an absolute must-see show.