Costa Mesa, CA--- If Willy Loman knew that only his family attended his funeral he would have been perplexed. He was sure the friends he cultivated from all over the northeast (his territory) would attend. Willy shaped his entire life around his story that if you were liked and you made your way on a ‘smile and a shoeshine’ you could have it all.
Willy Loman was a salesman. He was an average guy, well liked, salt of the earth and easy to get along with; forget what was in his samples cases. He was convinced that success would follow him because of his faith in the American Dream.
Miller’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning 1949 “Death of a Salesman” now in a moving production at South Coast Repertory Theatre in Costa Mesa, is quintessential Miller and Willy Loman is his Everyman. Charlie Robinson personifies him beautifully.
The tragedy of “Death of a Salesman” was that Willy’s downfall was in direct proportion to how preoccupied he was with his own perceptions of how successful he was and how that success would catapult him to greatness. In other words, Willy was his own best salesman; he believed everything he told himself about himself.
The die of Willy’s dream was cast years ago when he decided that his fortune lay in his personality and salesmanship, not in the frontiers of Alaska and Africa where his brother Ben (Gregg Daniel) and father before him went to make their fortunes in gold and diamonds.
It wasn’t because he didn’t have a craft. He was quite handy around the house. It wasn’t anything you could actually put your finger on. For 35 years what Willy sold was himself. He carved out his own frontiers along the New England States. For the longest time he was top banana. Times changed. Unfortunately Willy did not.
Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” was the recipient of the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Tony Award for Best Play. It premiered on Broadway in Feb. 1949 for 742 performances and has been revived on Broadway four times winning three Tony Awards for Best Revival. It has been staged at SCR in 1968-69 and 1997-98.
On the occasion of its 50th season South Coast Repertory Theatre has brought it back to life on the Segerstrom Stage through Sept. 29th; this time with stage and screen star Charlie Robinson as the once on top of the world prized salesman, now at the bottom of the totem pole willing to take a mere $45.00 a week take home even after his wife Linda reminds him that the insurance premium is due and they will need ‘a hundred and sixty-eight “because we’re short again”. (Kim Staunton is oft times moving and forceful but just as often lackluster and distant.)
Unbeknownst to Linda he has turned to his oldest and dearest friend and neighbor Charley (James A. Watson, Jr.) whose cash he accepts every week but whose job offer he’s too proud to take.Things go from bad to worse when he’s let go from the very job that defined him after that fateful meeting with his boss.
Robinson’s Willy is a man carrying the weight of the world on his back. In his sixties, he’s tired, troubled. When we first meet him his shoulders are hunched, his brows furrowed, his hair gray. He’s had one more mishap with the car. He could make it only it as far as Yonkers and doesn’t remember the details of his trip before he headed home again. Linda wants him off the road and in an office, right here in Brooklyn. She urges him again and again to ask Howard (Tyler Pierce is irritatingly on target) to take him off the road.
In a scene that’s enough to make you cry out loud, shows Willy going to young Howard's office where Howard barely has time to meet with him. Howard is his now boss. He inherited the business from his father, a long ago friend of Willy’s. He is calloused and not interested in the past. In Howard’s mind, Willy is dispensable and after listening to Willy plead his case, he fires him. “You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away,” counters Willy.
Robinson’s gut wrenching performance is low keyed but intense and on target. He’s a dreamer, a hustler, a solitary man still holding on to the past as his Willy shuffles, strains, digging into the psyche of a man who finds himself on the verge of depression and suicide and never really knowing what hit him along the way. Rarely smiling, his happiness comes in the dreams he had for his two boys Hap (Larry Bates) and Biff (Chris Butler is more than convincing) making them out to be more than they really were.
In one of Willy’s delusional moments, and here’s where Robinson shines, he imagines that they are boys, young again sparring and jibing at each other in a happier time in all of their lives. The truth is Biff left home after several unsuccessful attempts at making something of himself and has returned after an eight-year absence. Hap is another Willy, getting by; by the seat of his pants yet thinking he has the personality and savoir-faire to make it big.
Biff, who has done some soul searching while rounding up cattle in the west, wants to be his own man and not live in the shadow of Willy’s dreams. Willy won’t hear of it. Biff is his guy, destined to greatness because he too is well liked. Hap is the also ran son. He settles for less and less and after years of listening to Willy’s promises of the American Dream that he wished on his son Biff, Hap is convinced, like his father, that greatness is just around the corner.
Linda is the voice of reason throughout. She vacillates back and forth between pretending all is well and trying to bring him back to reality. She is conflicted about how to deal with the hallucinations and downward spiral she sees. She urges him to take it easy assuring him that they don’t need much money to live on from week to week since they only have one more house payment to make before the house is theirs.
Michael B. Raiford’s modern, angular and slotted boards/set design is at odds with the time frame of the production and distracting to a fault. Making it a bit palpable, Brian J. Lilienthal’s lighting design softens the atmosphere creating muted pictures outside and in. Holly Poe Durbin’s period costumes are all over the place with the exception of Willy’s. Marc Masterson’s direction is unpredictable and somewhat stymied by Raiford’s open set design oft times leaving characters stranded or in undefined spaces of the Loman house.
As Willy’s story unravels in both real time and in his imagination we journey with him through the last days of his struggle to maintain any form of dignity while tragedy takes its toll on the entire family. The American Dream just was not destined for the Loman’s.
How current the production of “Salesman” especially now when so many more Americans, who thought they had the American Dream in their hands, watched it slip through their fingers as the country fell into an economic funk.
“Salesman” is and will continue to be a timeless play worthy of seeing over and over again. SCR’s African American casting establishes that no one ethnicity can claim the lion’s share of tragedy and Robinson is here to prove it.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through Sept. 29th
Organization: South Coast Repertory Theatre
Production Type: Drama
Where: 655 Town center Drive Costa Mesa, CA92628
Ticket Prices: Start at $22.00
Venue: Segerstrom Stage