Willy Loman, that iconic male symbol of the American Dream turned to dust, has blown into Sag Harbor with all earthy bravado and final defeat intact in director Joe Minutillo’s gripping staging of “Death of a Salesman” at Bay Street Theater.
Arthur Miller wrote of a broken man with broken dreams who at 63 has degenerated into a sometimes delusional, always disappointed shell who senses his life will amount to no more than the worth of his insurance policy. No fulfilled dream here, just the dirge of relentless misfortune.
A Broadway veteran and familiar face from television, David Manis gives a thrilling, memorable performance as Willy Loman, and it is on his shoulders that the impact of the play rests. Mr. Manis inhabits the role with every sorrow remembered, every disillusionment sagging out of his well-worn suitcase. The minute he steps into Mike Billings’s quite remarkable multi-layered set, you sense that Mr. Manis is that shattered man. I soon forgot how taken I was by George C. Scott in the role decades ago in Manhattan.
The story for those unaware of this classic of the American theater canon is that of a traveling salesman who can’t cut it anymore; he lives in New York and is on his way to his territory—New England—but gets only as far as Yonkers when he realizes he is simply too worn out to continue. He turns around and comes home still in the early hours, to his wife, and two grown sons—both callow and further disappointments—asleep in the bedroom they shared as children. Both are wastrels, each in his own way. Within minutes you realize that the hapless Willy has not fallen so far as never risen so high, and now at the end of his career, however swell his success did soar, has deflated like a hot air balloon fallen to the ground.
“Death of a Salesman” first premiered on Broadway in 1949 when the playwright was 33; it picked up both a Pulitzer and a Tony for best drama. Then to the young Mr. Miller, 63, could have seemed old, very old. Nearly seven decades later, putting Willy Loman in his mid-60s might seem to be rushing matters; but then his career—traveling salesman—rarely exists today outside of pharmaceuticals, and running up and down the East Coast does sound like a job for a younger man.
Yet imagine the character as Everyman without a college degree making his way today, and the relevance of a guy feeling used up at 63 without a pension to keep his boat afloat becomes obvious. Seen through that prism, “Death of a Salesman” is as meaningful today as it was when written, a time when family elders, despite a post-war economic boom, remembered the ravages of the Depression.
Arthur Miller well understood this mindset. He grew up in Brooklyn; his father was a successful clothing manufacturer who absorbed the ups and downs of a fickle market. An uncle was a salesman whose career, and life, ended in suicide.
In the drama he wrote, Willy’s wife, Linda, holds the center together at home and referees between sons and father. The talented Carolyn Popp alternately breathes energy and weariness in a first-rate rendering of the character. Her plaintive empathy for her husband is best summarized in this well-known bit of dialogue: “… 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 into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person.”
But singling out Ms. Manis and Ms. Popp is not meant to diminish the rest of the cast: Rob DiSario as the big brother, Biff, who at 34 is getting nowhere, is exceptional, especially as he comes to grips with the reality of his life and hopes to make his father accept him as he is, not as he is imagined. Mr. DiSario turns a lowlife criminal into a sympathetic character by the end.
Others in the family drama writ large are Scott T. Hinson as the younger aimless brother, Happy; Chloë Dirksen as The Woman; Willy Cappuccio as the brainy neighbor and cousin, Bernard, as well as the waiter (he did this so well I didn’t recognize him doing double duty); Keith Cornelius as Willy’s successful brother Ben, and the boss who fires Willy; Neal Mayer as Charley, Willy’s cousin and neighbor and Bernard’s father; and Rachel Feldman and Tina Jones who flit about as entertaining ladies for the boys, with Ms. Feldman having another small role as someone who sees Willy for who he is.
Not only is the set stunning, so also is the magic Mr. Billings and Dalton Hamilton brought to the lighting, sound and dramatic projections against the stage, allowing the physical set to morph into a noisy subway car, the skyline of the city, industrial windows and finally, a cemetery.
This production is part of the Literature Live! series that brings one classic drama each fall at Bay Street to the stage for school groups who come from all over Long Island, and the general public as well. To contain the drama into 95 minutes, thus making it available to schools all over the island—more than 3,000 students came last year to see “The Scarlet Letter”—the original script has been pared to one-act. Yet nothing seems missing.
I’ve seen three of the Literature Live! series, and all have been excellent. A friend of mine demurred accompanying me once I said this staging was part of program for students.
She’s making a snooty mistake. All the tragedy is intact, and the acting is terrific. Leave the tots at home, but this is a treat for any audience.
“Death of a Salesman” continues with public performances Thursday, November 16, at 7 p.m., and Fridays at 7 p.m. and Saturdays at 2 and 7 p.m. through November 25. Tickets range from $20 to $55. Call 631-725-9500 or visit baystreet.org.