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WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE? ‘Death of a Salesman’ continues asking the tough questions

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“Death of a Salesman” is just as pertinent today as it was when it was written almost 70 years ago.

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Thalian Association continues their season with a powerful production of Arthur Miller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Death of a Salesman.” Directed by Charles Grimes, the show explores one family’s waning grasp on the American dream. “Death of a Salesman,” “All My Sons” and “The Crucible” cemented Miller’s reputation as a playwright and remain truly great modern classics that have inspired generations of work.

Willy Loman (Jim Bowling) is an aging salesman who has always found true success elusive. He works hard, but his personality has harder edges than softer ones. In spite of not having quite achieved what he dreamed of, he and his wife, Linda (Elaine Nalee) have raised two sons, Biff (Wilson Meredith) and Happy (Josh Bailey), and almost paid off their house. Willy is at the end of his rope and is staring back at his life, reliving moments in horror and frustrated pain. His family looks on, baffled as to how to help, and startled at their own responsibility for him and their mutual outcome.

Willy Loman is possibly one of the more intimidating roles in modern drama. The role was made famous by Lee J. Cobb in the original Broadway run and in the later CBS film, then again filmed by CBS, starring Dustin Hoffman. In the last 17 years there have been two Broadway revivals, one starring Brian Dennehy (1999) and the other Philip Seymour Hoffman in his last stage performance (2012). That’s a lot to live up to and try to make your own. Bowling’s Loman does have a baffled undirected anger that is the hallmark of the role. But his real tenderness for Linda and the boys in flashback scenes is heartbreaking to watch. His Loman really set the bit in his teeth for the American dream he thought he had: wife, kids, house, job, freedom to have a bit on the side, and gamble when he wanted. So where did it fall apart? He did everything, right—didn’t he?

The confusion, the struggle is so frustrating and erupts from Bowling in uncontrollable ways to show plainly how personal regret can take over one’s life. He is clearly poor-working class in attitudes toward money, his wife and children, and what he shows the world. What Bowling’s Loman doesn’t understand is that he doesn’t exist in a vacuum: Linda and the boys are not a reflection of him but rather part of the same team.  His Loman isn’t flawed so much as tragically human.

Nalee’s Linda is amazing. She is the glue that has held three men together in body and soul, let alone as a family, all these years.  Her grief in watching the man she loves and has devoted her life to wither before her eyes is palpable in her frustration and impotent anger. Where did she go so wrong with these two sons? How come neither of them can meet any familial responsibilities? What’s a woman to do with overgrown man children, when the most important thing in the world is dying in front of all of them and no one will lift a finger to help her?

Meredith and Bailey have an odd, awkward brother dynamic of never being able to see the world through a lens not shadowed by the other one. Meredith’s determination as Biff to speak the truth to the lie that is their family life is possibly more frightening to Happy than to Willy. Bailey’s distraction tactics in the face of his rising panic are the undercurrent that keeps the boat afloat. Why can’t his mother see how hard he is trying to keep all this OK?

The performances are really great, not just from the Loman family but the supporting cast as well. Craig Meyers and David T. Loudermilk as Charles and Bernard, the successful neighbor family, grabs the heartstrings. The pitch point is delivered not so much from Loudermilk’s young Bernard during flashbacks (where he was more the messenger of information than a key player) but as an older Bernard who has made something of his life looking at a family he idolized when he was young. How awkward to realize your idols are failures—that you might never have had their perceived popularity, that you might have been nerdy and irritating to them? Yet, somewhere you achieved what they wanted and they are looking at you from behind the start lines, wondering what happened. It’s that payoff for hard work, what you were promised in high school by your teachers. How crazy to realize they were right.

Loudermilk’s quiet embarrassment when Charlie starts to brag about his accomplishments is a lovely testimony to just how well his parents really did raise him. It shows who his character is deep down: a man of morale, unlike his friends, the Loman boys.

With Meyers’ Charlie one sees a decent person who tries to do the right thing while taking care of his family. In his case, it includes teaching his son to have a responsibility to others. But, wow, Willy is tough to befriend. Meyers plays Charlie as the guy who invites someone to Christmas dinner after learning he must spend the holidays alone—only to have said person complain about the menu. Still, he keeps trying beyond reasonable point, because it is the decent thing to do. Meyers manages to give us a Charlie (especially at the funeral) who has a good heart but also a genuine fear of “there but for the grace of God go I” when he looks at the Loman family.

If there is a drawback to the show, it would come from hearing the stage manager talking backstage throughout the second half. The funeral scene opened with, “Oh, crap! I can’t see Craig. There he is. OK, go light cue…”  The giggling and patter continued overshadowing and (at times) drowning out the dialogue onstage. Elaine Nalee was pouring her heart out to Willy’s grave in one of the powerful final monologues of 20th century theatre and I almost didn’t hear her tell Willy she had paid off the house because of the chatter from offstage. The work of the performers in this show is tough, searching and demanding. They deserve to be treated with greater respect. The audience deserves to be able to follow the story to the conclusion and to honor the work that they have come to see.

“Death of a Salesman” is just as pertinent today as it was when it was written almost 70 years ago. Loman is an everyman character, and his own journey is not only a cautionary tale but a reminder of our own responsibilities to ourselves and our loved ones. The performances stick with audiences for days. They leave them asking questions Miller is still whispering in all our ears: Who are we? Where are we going? What could we be doing better?

Death of a Salesman
Feb. 11-14; 7:30 p.m., Sun., 3 p.m.
Tickets: $15-$30
Thalian Hall • 310 Chestnut St.

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