Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
The story of Willie Loman has resonated with every generation since its 1949 premiere, but perhaps more than ever does his story hit home amidst today's ubiquitous and ominous headlines of the disappearing middle class and the cynical disillusionment of entire groups of Americans who believe the Land of Opportunity no longer as a place for them. The play that is taught at some time or another in almost every American high school is now presented by Palo Alto Players in an experiment to blend actors of the local theatre with faculty, staff, and alumni members of Palo Alto's Gunn High School, resulting in a true community undertaking of Death of a Salesman. The endeavor is worthy while the results are at best mixed.
This is a story well known by even the most casual of theatregoers or students of American literature. The forty-eight hours we witness are the climax of a lifetime of hopes built on family-shared fantasies; genuine hero-worship of parent, spouse and sons; and belief that "who you know" will always win out over "what you know." Ultimately, the glad-handing, braggadocio, "I cannot help but someday succeed" frame of Willie's dreams for himself and particularly for his favored son Biff come crashing down in avalanche proportions. Mr. Miller is shattering the widely touted belief of the late 1940s (and now early 2000s) that anyone can make it in America if only enough hard work and belief in the justice of the system is applied. Willie has clearly worked himself almost to the grave, increasingly living in a world of haunting illusions that success will just happen to him and his sons because of who they areor who he wants them to be in a dream world that has overtaken the harsh realities around him.
In this production, the brilliant set design of Janny Coté summarizes best the messages and themes of Arthur Miller's script. The Loman house rises before us as a claustrophobic, flimsy set of boxy rooms with plywood walls made of hollow rectangles, crude stairs with no support rail, and upper levels with no safety guards, as actors scoot precariously along the edge. Surrounded by threatening red brick walls of encroaching apartment buildings and full of dark shadows of a now-treeless yard that no longer can grow a garden (effectively lit by Edward Hunter), the Loman house is one mortgage payment away from being fully owned. With its leaks and flaws and cheap appliances that do not work properly and are still being paid off, the house stands as a sad but sure testament to the failed dreams of Willie's life.
Tim Farrell, a celebrated Gunn literature teacher for 46 years, steps into the part played by hundreds before him, fully looking like a Willie Loman, with his natural head and beard of silver and deep lines of age and life experiences running along his countenance. In the first act, his delivery of Willie is for the most part acceptable but not noteworthy as he only skims the surface of Willie's pains, hopes, and disillusionments. His whispery, gruff voice works well for the part but lacks much subtle differentiation. However, in act two, Mr. Farrell fully embodies Willie's deteriorating state of mind and body as his face withers into forlorn anguish, his shoulders slump and back stoops, his steps stumble to the point of barely holding his body upright, and his voice degenerates into gravely and painful breaths. Coupled with appropriate, momentary regeneration into a spry, hopeful Willie when dreams re-emerge temporarily through false hopes of his sons' new venture, Mr. Farrell gives us in act two a Willie Loman to ponder and remember.
Other memorable moments are created by actors performing several minor characters. John Musgrave is a bigger-than-life, foreboding image in Willie's mind and memory of his brother Ben. Every appearance by Mr. Musgrave in his Southern gentleman suit, hat, and umbrella as cane is startling on its nervous and excited effect on Willie and on us as audience. Bill C. Jones as the curmudgeon next door and Willie's life-long friend Charley brings both humor and humanity to the part while Todd L. Summers as Charley's smart and successful son Bernard plays both the Biff-worshiping younger boy and the grown-up lawyer with spirit and sensitivity. Brian Flegel is excellent as Willie's young boss Howard Wagner, obsessed with showing off to Willie his new tape recording device and soon impatient and embarrassed by Willie's hollow claims of importance to the firm. Mr. Flegel also offers wonderful comic relief doubling in parts as an amiable bar waiter. Finally, kudos go to Jennifer Ellington as the ongoing, on-the-road fling of Willie, a flirty woman with beautiful tight curls, a teasing way of laughing at everything Willie says, and a love for the boxed nylons he brings her.
What also works overall for this production are many of the directorial decisions by Kristen Lo. Having Ben emerge in the memory of Willie from a darkened aisle of the theatre or whisking in other scenes of his past accompanied by flute and simple, other-worldly melodies (with a hat tip to sound designer Jeff Grafton) are examples of touches that really work in conveying the script's intent.
Unfortunately, where the Palo Alto Players well-intended effort to include high school community members in the production falls apart is in the casting of the other three (beyond Willie) critical roles. The two brothers, Biff and Happy (Paul Dunlap and Justin Brown), are never able to make the case for their individual parts. In the first act, there is little differentiation given between the two in looks, style, voice, or demeanor. In the second act, some nuance emerges, but many of the emotional outbursts so critical to the play seem too forced and not coming from the gut. Likewise and even more troubling is Gay Richard's Linda, Willie's wife. Most of her lines seem to be more recited than embodied. She too rarely becomes Linda versus a person playing Linda. Missing is a convincing and so-needed portrayal of the older, aging, weary wife and mother and an arresting second act presence in her diatribes against no-good sons, her heartfelt attempts to shore-up of her beloved Willie, and her increasing attempts to upright the sinking ship around her. The absence of these three performances as convincing portrayals is the big and glaring gap of the production.
But as noted in the beginning, the words of Arthur Miller in the end almost always win out. While not perfect, this 85th anniversary production by Palo Alto Players of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman is still a celebration that many audience members will find worthy. The power of the word and the message are still very much present.
Palo Alto Players continues the production of Death of a Salesman through January 31, 2016, at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are available at www.paplayers.org or by calling 650-329-0891.