AISLE SAY Twin Cities


By Arthur Miller
Directed by Joe Dowling
Starring Peter Michael Goetz,
Helen Carey, Matthew Greer and Adam Greer
Guthrie Theatre
25 Vineland Place, Minneapolis, (612) 347-1100
August 14-September 19, 2004

Reviewed by Roxanne Sadovsky

Not two minutes after curtain (we briefly joined the audience in a well-earned standing ovation before rushing out the back door to beat the crowd), I launched into a heated monologue on our walk back to the car. "Why is this play still so powerful? Why does it ring true now more than ever? You would think -- or at least hope -- that such a timeless play, wouldn't be so timeless. I mean, it's the job of theatre and art to give people the okay to be whoever they want to be in life... to not end up like Willy Loman, right? Not that I'm blaming the Guthrie; they really know how to do Arthur Miller. They did fans and members another great social and entertainment service by staging a provocative and disturbing play...yet, it bothers me, Dad. It bothers me that now, especially now when we should feel free to follow our own passion in life -- not kiss the boss's ass, not wear high-heels if they hurt our feet, not value money and prestige over intimacy, awareness, and love, not need to drive a big, flashy car or hang out in a cube farm all day...We no longer in this day and age, regardless of what others say we should do, we no longer need to be peer pressured into a life that isn't right for us...right, Dad?!"

Dad doesn't necessarily follow (or agree), but as usual my tirade amuses him. "Just because you follow your passion, do you think everyone knows what they want in life?  What's so bad about a flashy car?"

Suddenly it occurs to me that not all children are lucky enough to have the kind of parents that I have -- the sort that have always encouraged me and my brother to follow our dreams, no matter what the mainstream is doing. But most kids don't have Willy Loman for a father. Or do they? And if so, do they all end up cast in dead-end roles in life, like the enabling cast who support Willy Loman (Peter Michael Goest) in his endless quest for the unobtainable? Is the unfortunate family eternally indentured to the toxic whims of the head of the household in order to maintain the homeostasis of the family?

Willy Loman—for those who forgot since high school English—is the tragic centerpiece of Arthur Miller's famed two-act play about a dysfunctional family, which rests on the dysfunctional dream of aging salesman, Willy Loman. Nearing retirement as well as madness, Loman makes one last effort to live the American dream by dragging his role cast family along for the ride. While the drama takes place in and around the Loman home (the two "boys" are home visiting) over a 24 hour period, much of the action spans their lifetime with memories of what was (or what could be) via flashbacks. As Loman's tortured memory spills all over the stage, it doesn't take long to figure out that he (along with his family, his job, and his sanity) is headed for a train wreck. Thankfully, Dowling doesn't get too experiential on us, and the set is simple, but classy and well defined—which can be challenging when trying to convey several realities, locations, and decades.

So what happens when the Game of Life goes awry? Drama-kings and queens: get ready! Death of a Salesman is packed with drama of the most Millerian kind. Secrets, shame, deception, and identity crises simmer under the surface of an ostensibly common story about a father who wants his children to follow in his footsteps while everyone else cheers on the sidelines. Trouble is, it's all a hoax. No matter how tightly supportive wife, Linda Loman (Helen Carey) holds his hand, or how many girls, business deals, and important dinners conformist son, Happy Loman (Adam Greer) can close, no one can please dear old Dad, least of all Dad himself. While hope flickers in Biff Loman (Matthew Greer), the rebel-with-much-cause "other" son who tries to regain the spotlight of yesteryear (which he earned by making dad so proud on the football field), he simply cannot handle a lifetime sentence to the nine-to-five work-day. So who's to blame when life is so darn unfair? Ourselves? Corporate America? Slacker kids? Pathetic housewives? False ideals? Downsizing? Only the characters themselves can figure that out...and some do.

Like most Arthur Miller plays, this one gets you talking.  In fact, this is the third Guthrie production of Salesman, which first ran in 1963, again in 1991, and judging by the enthusiasm, acclaim, and the Guthrie's loyalty to Arthur Miller (who staged the world premier of Resurrection Blues in 2002, and has also done The Crucible and All My Sons), will likely follow the theatre when it moves downtown next year. Nu, who's complaining? Not a one. It is delightful to see the Guthrie continue to reach the mainstream with shows—both at Vineland and at the Lab—that are "disturbing" and "powerful." As promised, Miller and the Guthrie are a match made in heaven. The production is smooth, crisp, and particularly effective in the use of stage space, where scenes not only split, but also flash backward, forward, and somewhere in the imaginary in between.

Indeed Salesman continues to "disturb" theatre-goers as much as it ever did. Despite the discrepancies in cultural, psychological, and technical evolution since its "present day" staging back in the 1940s (with several flashbacks to boot), the universal and timeless themes addressed in Miller's Salesman are alive and well some sixty years later. For example, the instant gratification of owning a groundbreaking voice recorder (Loman's narcissistic boss, Howard Wagner (Bill McCallum) tastelessly flaunts the latest in techo-toys (only "a hundred and a half") when Willy comes begging for a raise), is a pleasure of antiquity to the year 2004, lost to the instant-instant gratification of cyber land and the dream of stardom. Getting axed, is the same thing as losing a job—no matter the year or injustice. Most  unchanged, though, is the big myth of the American Dream: Money, stuff, fame, good-looks, and more stuff fast will make us happy. So while the heated discussion may not be about the unjust life of the traveling salesman, family therapist are going to have a field-day with this one. No matter which hill you would die on, Miller hits all of them and we are forced to feel something for every last character, no matter how sleazy.

While the socio-economic issues Miller addresses in Salesman were certainly relevant at the time Willy Loman was first penned in 1948, critics like to think that our world has changed. We like to imagine that good guys are in style and that love really is the only answer. I for one would like to believe that thanks to great plays, works of art, and people such as Arthur Miller, that such an outdated and naïve mentality as the one presented in Salesman ostensibly has no place in our world. I mean, doesn't anyone do yoga for god sakes?!

Then again, if memory (via his 1987 memoir, Timebends) serves me well, Miller's empathy for the "salesman" was both authentic and controversial and spoke to a multitude of personal and profound crises. Over the years, Salesman was attacked for many different things such as being anti-American, irrelevant, and several climactic scenes were even written out of the screenplay in the 1950s. Despite the controversy, Miller guarded the plight of Willy Loman for what it was: "One terror-stricken man calling out into the void for help that will never come," he wrote in Timebends. In other words, we have all been Loman at one time or another. We all struggle at one time or another to fit in, make it big, and earn the respect of those around us—the tragedy comes when we have all those things but don't recognize them for what they are, or worse, when we do see them, but they are not enough. Peter Michael Goetz expertly delivers the epitome of Loman at his worst in heart-breaking spasms where a cracking voice trapped in a cycle of gaining and losing his composure reveals a man caught between the Loman he wants to be and the Loman he really is. The tragedy -- both for Loman or any of us -- is in chasing a manufactured dream which inevitably labels us "loser" when the dream crumbles. Again, Goetz conveys Loman's pain in convincing scenes where he begs the "winners" of the world (like Bernard, (Santino Fontana) the nerdy science-geek who ironically grows up to be the very shining suit of success Loman so wants for his family): "What's the secret? Tell me: What's the secret?"

In any case, no matter who we are in the world, Salesman still begs us to explore who we most identify with in this play. The cool thing is that neither Miller nor the outstanding cast provides us with a right or wrong answer. Because each actor knows his character so well and is so dedicated to the individual he or she is, we are endeared to each of them, regardless of their many, many shortcomings. We even see the appeal of godlike Uncle Ben (Stephen Yoakam, who stole the show last April at the Guthrie Lab's Blue/Orange) who appears in a gust of ethereal streaks of light in both flashbacks and surplus reality scenes. As the archetypal voice of big-time success, he represents Willie's long-ago retired older brother role model; always sharply dressed like Colonel Sanders, quick witted, and in on the best deals, he is a constant haunt whom eventually contributes to Willy's spiral toward madness.

Personally, I (and most people I know) am the Biff Loman (Matthew Greer) in the bunch. I spent the first half of my life trying to "find myself," only to discover that I knew who I was and what I wanted all along. It took a lot of time, pain, a bad marriage, and conforming to mainstream standards—beginning with the abominable things I did to my hair—but it finally led me back home. And by "back home" I do not mean the place I grew up. Like Biff, there will always be a part of me that wonders deep down if "they" are right, but even so, I am willing to go with my heart. And that's why this play is so timeless. Countless folks—not just the Biffs, but also the Happys, the Lindas, and the Uncle Bens—need an occasional reminding of who they are—or aren't. Director Joe Dowling and his passionate cast know it, Arthur Miller knew it when he wrote it, and others will know it over time.

As for Dad and me, we both need reminding that the Guthrie theatre is ideal for tall-fidgety play-goers like us. In fact, toward the end of the first act, our "Restless Leg Syndrome" got the worst of us and we traded our killer seats for the back row where we had room to sprawl. But it was still like being in the Loman living room.

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