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Attention must be paid to Miller’s ‘Death’

OPINION by Bob Wisener | October 15, 2022 at 4:00 a.m.

Had he not wed Marilyn Monroe, Arthur Miller still would be recognized as one of America's greatest playwrights. Toss Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams into the mix, shuffle the order any way you like, and come up with a fourth (Edward Albee or David Mamet?) for the Mount Rushmore of the American stage.

With considerable interest, I attended a local production of Miller's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Death of a Salesman" on Sunday afternoon at Pocket Community Theatre (Ramble Street, off Park Avenue). When a local troupe takes on a production like this, attention must be paid, to use an oft-quoted line from Miller's 1949 play.

That line is uttered in act one by Linda Loman, the long-suffering wife of the play's lead character, Willy Loman, the salesman referred to in the title.

Willy has worked the Northeast territory, that 700-mile stretch today connected by Amtrak's Acela route, for years, perhaps too long to note the passage of time. He and Linda have two children, Biff and Happy, although as Willy drifts into senility, one can hardly call it a happy household.

"Something terrible is happing to him," Linda tells her sons in the first act. One is reminded of Mr. Bernstein, Charles Foster Kane's former business manager (played on the screen by Everett Sloane) in Orson Welles' 1941 masterwork "Citizen Kane." Old age, he said, is "the only disease that you don't look forward to being cured of."

Willy's two sons also appear gripped by the same general malaise. Happy, the younger, says "I don't know what the hell I'm working for. .... But then, it's what I always wanted. My own apartment, a car, plenty of women, and still ... I'm lonely."

Biff, we are told, is a former athlete whose life went off track after failing math his senior year and dropping out of summer school when he saw Willy with another woman on a visit to Boston. He might be happier working on a ranch but is driven to earn his father's respect.

Willy's older brother, Ben, is a tycoon after extensive travels in Alaska. Ben is literally a head taller than Willy, and, traveling a road not taken, Willy sees that he could have made the same fortune.

Willy works up the courage to ask his boss, Howard Wagner, that he be taken off the road. Howard, bound up with flaunting his wealth, sees Willy as a liability to the company. Willy quotes a figure that he can live with but twice violates the first rule of negotiations, "Never cut your price."

"Aren't you supposed to be in Boston?" Howard asks coldly after showing off his new wire recorder. He asks Willy to leave the office ("I've got people here to see and I need the room"), then fires Loman, who worked for his father.

While Loman hangs on to the past, others ask, "When the hell are you going to grow up?" In the end, Biff lays it outs for his father: "We're both a dime a dozen." In time, Willy leaves the house and one hears sounds of a fatal smashup.

Except for a funeral attended only by family members and two close friends, thus ends "Death (by suicide) of a Salesman." It was the shortest three hours in a theater I can remember.

Now in semiretirement, I can watch the play with clearer understanding than when, in my 30s, Dustin Hoffman appeared as Willy Loman on a CBS production of the Miller classic, John Malkovich winning an Emmy playing Biff. Coming from a family of salesmen though hearing a different call, I can relate.

What happens to a star athlete when the crowd stops cheering? Or when a salesman needs more than a smile and a shoeshine to get by? And when after a failed road trip, he tells his wife, "I'm not noticed anymore."

"Death of a Salesman" has local performances this evening and Sunday afternoon at Pocket Community Theatre. Along with the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival in progress, these are highlights of the cultural season in our city.

Print Headline: Attention must be paid to Miller’s ‘Death’

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