By Arthur Miller. Directed by John Cooper. A Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company production. At the Playhouse on Friday, February 18. Continues until March 5
You don’t often get an evening of theatre that’s this deep and wide.
Willy Loman, the central character in Arthur Miller’s 1949 script Death of a Salesman, is the everyman of capitalism. At the beginning of the play, he slumps on-stage carrying his suitcases: he’s 63, used-up, and reduced to working on straight commission. Still, Willy believes in the American dream and he transfers his hopes to his son Biff, who was once the golden boy of his high-school football team. At 34, Biff is incapable of holding down a job, but his father soon persuades him to open up a sporting goods store with his younger brother Happy. Willy’s wife Linda supports her husband’s dreams, unwittingly shepherding him to his downfall.
In the wrong hands, the script can look predictable and naive. You hear the title and you know where it’s headed. And the characters go in circles, cycling round and round from harsh reality to false hope. Long-suffering Linda and the gosh-darn versions of the young Biff and Happy—we seem them as kids in flashbacks—can come across as clichés. But John Cooper has cast this production perfectly and, under his outstanding direction, the actors get deep inside the characters’ skins and bring out every nuance of the script’s churning, desperate life.
Tom McBeath’s Willy isn’t a deflated victim; he is tenacious—so fixated that he eventually leads you to the sickening realization that this man simply can’t give up the dream that defines him. In its force and complexity—Willy’s eyes glitter with zealotry one moment, he is craven and lost the next—McBeath’s characterization is heroic in its scale.
Bob Frazer’s Biff is the opposing force. In the second act, Biff struggles to tell his father the truth: none of their schemes will work out. Thanks to Frazer’s excellent work, watching Biff getting dragged back into the family’s web of lies is nauseating. And the scene in which Biff finally admits that he’s a loser and sobs at his father’s feet is moving.
Donna Belleville’s warm voice and no-nonsense presence, as well as the subtlety of her characterization, make her a perfect Linda. Kevin K. James is terrific as Happy, slowly revealing the heartless underside of his character’s buoyancy. And Eric Keenleyside plays the sensible neighbour Charley with generous simplicity.
Composer Steve Thomas’s energetic yet meditative music eases the transitions into the play’s many scenes of fantasy and memory.
When Death of a Salesman is done this well, it’s easy to see Miller’s influence on playwrights such as Sam Shepard. And it’s impossible to miss the play’s relevance: we’re all selling something—often to ourselves.