Death of a Salesman

by | May 23, 2023

By Nick Pilgrim

“Do you have any idea what it’s like to be a nobody?”
Kim Stanley (as Lillian Farmer)
Frances, 1982

Death of a Salesman is an American Classic.

Authored in 1948 by Arthur Miller (1915 – 2005), the prolific playwright is also known for All My Sons (1947), The Crucible (1953), and A View from The Bridge (1955). Of all his works, Death of a Salesman is widely regarded as Miller’s masterpiece.

Sweeping the 1949 season, this searing family drama scooped multiple accolades including Best Play (Tony Awards, New York Critic’s Circle) and that year’s Pulitzer Prize.

Notable Broadway revivals were staged in 1975, 1984, 1999 and 2012.  Earlier this year at the Hudson Theatre on West 44th Street, the Lomans were performed by a people-of-colour cast. Its lead, Wendell Pierce, has also been nominated in the Best Actor category at the upcoming 2023 Tony Awards.

Following Saturday evening’s performance at the iconic Clocktower Centre in Moonee Ponds, I asked myself why Miller’s play continues to resonate with audiences around the world.

An anthem for the invisible everyman, now more than ever, big business plays God with people’s lives. Devoted cogs are thrown on the scrapheap and abandoned when their services are no longer financially viable.

Having reviewed for more than a decade, I was immediately reminded of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie (by the American Repertory Theater). Directed by John Tiffany and starring Cherry Jones as Amanda Wingfield, I will never forget seeing her headline their hypnotic Broadway transfer on the West End six years ago.

A fragmented memory piece like Death of a Salesman, it is the story of an aging Southern belle living in a fantasy world. Unable to fulfill her own faded dreams, Wingfield looks vicariously to a closeted grown son and crippled daughter as a way out.

As much a fly-on-the-wall character study as it is a gut-wrenching metaphor, Hearth Theatre must be congratulated for their pitch-perfect interpretation. True to Miller’s text and mood, this gripping take would be as much at home side by side with any major theatrical release now playing in either London or New York City.

Divided into two acts running a total three hours in length, Hearth Theatre have created an experience both for discerning audiences and actors training their craft. Daring and ahead of its time, the play tackles such taboo topics as sexual infidelity, betrayal, narcissism, suicidal ideation, and undiagnosed dementia full force.

Set in two interwoven time periods fifteen years apart, a deep secret shockingly exposed rocks one working-class family to its very core. By the time we get to know the Lomans, the damage has been done.  Christopher Tomkinson’s sensitive direction fuses intelligent pacing and brilliant stage craft, allowing viewers piece by piece to see the story unfold and bloom.

In his care, Death of a Salesman exerts tremendous organic power when scenes swirl and overlap. Like the Autumn leaves symbolically scattered across the stage, life, and death gather as one. Existing only in the moment, this linear inevitability is over in the blink of an eye.

Very much an ensemble experience, the veteran cast showcase the tremendous trust, commitment, and risk necessary to make the play’s method acting stylings succeed. Laid bare under the microscope, every spoken word and resulting action feel achingly raw and real. Watching people in crisis looking for answers when there aren’t any, makes the overall experience that much more compelling.

Each performer in the eleven-strong cast is a standout.

From Margot Knight (as Linda Loman), Andrew Blackman (as Uncle Ben), Charlie Cousins (as Biff Loman), Ross Dwyer (as Happy Loman), Joe Petruzzi (as Charley) and Juan Fernando Monge (as Bernard), their masterful work is equally supported by Kim Denman (as The Woman), Sorab Kaikobad (as Howard Wagner / Stanley) Yvette Turner (as Miss Forsythe) and Isabella Perversi (as Jenny / Letta).

At the show’s centre, Paul English (as Willy Loman) has the unenviable task of making a tortured, flawed, and angry individual earn our sympathy and understanding. As Miller’s protagonist slowly loses his grip, we witness firsthand Loman’s desperation and pain. English is a revelation.

Adrienne Chisolm’s deceptively simple set and costume design highlight the world-weary environment these people inhabit.  Placed against a stark black backdrop, the Lomans’ postwar struggle is reinforced by tired furniture and shabby, hand-me-down clothes.

Spare yet considered lightning design from Shane Grant supports these qualities.

Special mention to Matt Furlani’s precise voice and dialect coaching, add the necessary period and place to Miller’s cautionary tale.

In the lead-up to a strictly limited season at Chapel off Chapel in Prahran (June 7 – 11), the show will first stop at The Bowery in St Albans (on May 30) and The Drum in Dandenong (on June 3), before continuing through outer suburban Melbourne, regional Victoria, and New South Wales.

This flipside to the American Dream like A Raisin In the Sun (by Lorraine Hansberry) or Miss Saigon (by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg), here is a production with tremendous attention to detail.  Why not take the opportunity to experience this rarely staged time capsule for yourself.

Images: Jack Dixon-Gunn

 

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