Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman has been described as the first great American tragedy. Certainly, it is a powerful play, and Willy Loman is one of theatre’s most tragic figures. Denver Center’s Mike Hartman plays him brilliantly with passion and pent-up anger that elicits empathy for the poor soul. When Willy approaches his boss to plead for a non-traveling job, the desperation in his voice and face is gut-wrenching, the tipping point of his demise. This may be Hartman’s finest performance.
We meet Willy Loman, the “low man,” at age 63, worn out like his refrigerator and weary of traveling to support his family determined to live the American Dream after World War II. His long-suffering wife Linda (Lauren Klein) is devoted to him, defending him at all costs and listening mindlessly to his exaggerated achievements.
Willy has lived a delusional life. Only now is he starting to see the truth that begins his slow psychological death and, ultimately, his physical death. “People don’t seem to take to me,” he says to Linda. “They laugh at me.” When he tells her “I’m feeling kind of temporary about myself” and “After all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive,” he hints at thoughts of suicide.
His grown sons Happy (M. Scott McClean), a one-dimensional playboy, and Biff (John Patrick Hayden), a high school football star who has done nothing with his life, lack direction and moral codes, though they do love their parents. Biff and his dad argue constantly, mostly because Biff has not lived up to Willy’s grandiose expectations. Having caught his father with a mistress when he was younger, Biff denounces Willy’s materialistic world and prefers to live out west. Biff is the only one who truly faces reality in the end: “Pop, I’m a dime a dozen, and so are you.”
Willy’s deceased brother Ben (John Hutton) keeps entering his memory, reminding him of his missed opportunity to make a fortune in Alaska.
The play is full of symbolism. For example, when Willy realizes that he has nothing to show for his 36-year career, he decides to plant a garden. “I’ve got to get some seeds. Nothing is planted. I don’t have a thing in the ground.”
Director Anthony Powell stages clear flashbacks, effectively using lighting and costumes to delved into Willy’s past. The closeness of the audience in the intimate Space theater adds to the feeling of the world closing in on Willy.
The tragedy of the play is summed up in the words of Linda: Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall in his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.
This is the first production of Death of a Salesman by the Denver Center Theatre Company. The play was first performed in 1949; it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play. Its revival on Broadway in 2012 won two Tony Awards.
Death of a Salesman continues at the Space Theatre at the Denver Center for Performing Arts through October 20. Performances are Tuesday-Thursday at 6:30 p.m.; Friday-Sunday at 7:30 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday at 1:30 p.m. For tickets, call 303-893-9582 or visit www.denvercenter.org.