Attention must be paid to Arthur Miller’s original title for his American tragedy: The Inside of His Head. Miller describes his intent: "The Salesman image was from the beginning absorbed with the concept that nothing in life comes ‘next,’ but that everything exists together and at the same time within us; there is no past to be ‘brought forward’ in a human being, but that he is his past at every moment.” This expands on the 21st century’s obsession with the “here and now” to understand that our memories and even our future dreams are always present; brain science can confirm that the brain houses all these causes and conditions, and access is always key. New Yorker writer Roger Angell calls this “the white-coated attendant of memory, silently here again to deliver dabs from the laboratory dish of me.” However, in Death of a Salesman, the dabs continue to enlarge until they fill the landscape so much, that Willie Loman’s family cannot comprehend who Willie is addressing.
So why did Miller change the title of the play and what was the title Death of a Salesman supposed to encapsulate? His friends were quick to criticize the original title as not serious enough. But the eventual title was definitely what reviewers call a “spoiler.” Even Miller’s original producer was loathe to back a show with “death” advertised in lights. The “spoiler” gives away the ending, and thus took the plot out of the American story-telling mode; it could never be a thriller, or a mystery with a proper denouement. However, it did raise the play to the stature of a tragedy, much like the Greek tragedies of old, which were all variations on a well-known mythic story from the current heritage. Everyone, of course, knew that Oedipus married his mother and would be blinded. And everyone, even today, knows the trajectory of a beaten man, whose dreams, never come to fruition. The vagaries of our society with its business goal of planned obsolescence sadly include classes of workers, and in this case, salesmen, where Willie’s ideal of “well-liked” become irrelevant. His infatuation with success and self-absorption blinded him to how he broke his eldest son’s heart, how he misled him to worship the same gods as the father, and how his values were childishly arrested at that young age when his own father abandoned the family. His older brother Ben, fictional or not, became the ideal of a man who walked into the forest as a teenager and walked out “a rich man.”
Miller wrote this timeless story 65 years ago when the 1941 novel What Makes Sammy Run by Budd Schulberg became a wildly popular radio show, a TV series, and a popular Broadway play. Ruthless success marked Sammy’s life and was a sharp contrast to Willie’s fate, even though there may have been many successful years. In the talk back after the performance, the current economic climate was discussed with examples of older workers being terminated. The bottom line, as business calls it, still rules and always will, with employee cutbacks as a straight path to more profits. Today many people are not even looking for work, wit the situation of retraining and elder prejudice fostering this environment. Charles Isherwood, in a New York Times review of last year’s Broadway production starring the ill-fated late Philip Seymour Hoffman, described the monumental significance in what has been called the greatest American play of all time. He wrote that “Death of a Salesman remains a touchstone work of American drama that speaks as powerfully to readers and viewers today as it did to audiences in 1949, when Miller’s dissection of the moral rot at the heart of an average American family left audiences stunned by the force of its perceptions.”
So the play is not about telling just another story it’s about the process of decline that lacks awareness of the building blocks of life and the misguided false values that plague our debt-ridden culture. When someone analyzed Willie as fixated childishly at the age of abandonment, a psychologist whispered that this psycho-babel sidesteps the deeper reflections on the American cultural ambience, the makeup of family, the morality and immorality of the times, and the real deep matters of the soul to which “Attention must be paid.” This line by Linda Loman and others, like being “free and clear” raise the profound issues of which matters need attention and how does one’s soul attain this state of consciousness.
Ken Baltin’s Willie Loman was, in the words of one white-haired theater buff who saw the 1949 production, "better than Lee J. Cobb," who played the original Willie Loman. Baltin, was, in his opinion, deeper, and more heart felt. Sometimes tyrannical, playful, lonely, whining in his wife’s lap, and humiliated, Baltin enacts the face of denial and irresponsibility, which underlines the pathos of a man whose dignity has become obsolete, as obsolete as the idea of a “company man.”
Willie’s wife Linda, played by Paula Plum, embodies her lines with more dignity as Willie loses his. She sings to him, dresses him, and mothers him through his disillusion and distress. As the rock of a dysfunctional family, this stay at home mom and wife wraps her life around her husband and boys, whose arrested development saddens her. Her final lines of the play, said with amazing pace and character brought tears to many eyes.
Kelby Akin’s breathless and wordless heartache during Biff’s surprise revelation at his father Willie’s betrayal, resonated through the theatre. Everyone has known this moment in life, and those moments were palpable and present. Joseph Marrella added a swagger as the younger brother and womanizer Happy, which was an exaggerated contrast to the character’s childhood seeking constant approval. Larry Coen’s good hearted Charley, sometimes cynical and sometimes jovial, demonstrated how he paid attention to investing the lasting values that fathered the understated success of his son Bernard. Victor Shopov's performance underlined the contrast between the confident adult and the teenage nerd so well, that the adult Bernard seemed like a different character.The mythical Uncle Ben, who marched through Willie’s consciousness at key moments was deftly played by Will McGarrahan with a straight back and real confidence. Howard, the boss’s son, who ultimately fired Willie, portrayed gracefully by Omar Robinson, demonstrated some deft directorial irony, having an African American actor call a 60 year old white guy “kid.”
Spiro Veloudos staged a stunning contemporary version of an old play with a universal theme. His collaboration with composer Dewey Dellay added a poignancy and pathos that underlined the salient emotions in each scene. This alone is worth the price of admission.
The play runs through March 15, 2014. Call the Lyric Stage Company of Boston at 617-585-5678, or go to the website at http://www.lyricstage.com before tickets sell out.