Playwright: Arthur Miller
At: Hypocrites at Athenaeum,
2936 N. Southport
Phone: ( 312 ) 902-1500; $20
Runs through: Oct. 16
BY RICK REED
'You can't eat the orange and throw the peel away,' laments Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's classic depiction of lost illusions and the falseness of the American Dream. Perhaps the playwright's most analyzed, studied, and respected work, Death of a Salesman presents many challenges to a director and ensemble who want to resurrect it once more and stamp it with the mark of their own interpretation.
Thankfully, Sean Graney, bolstered by a fine ensemble and creative team, elegantly and eloquently rises to the challenge in this spare, inspired production. Graney's take on the story of Willy Loman ( played with downtrodden weariness by Bill McGough ) , a second-rate, has-been salesman whose life has been a series of disappointments, wrong turns, and misguided dreams, is a take that I think Miller would have been proud of. Graney makes of the small Athenaeum studio space a world of doors, doors that tiredly open, but more importantly, slam shut. Near the end of this salesman's life, his misdirected ambitions climax in nothing more than slammed door and slammed door, the final door the slam of his casket closing after his suicide. Loman, at the end of his rope and believing that a man's worth is measured in dollar signs, realizes that his life insurance benefit will make more of a mark on his pulled-apart family than he himself ever could have. Willy tells his neighbor Charley ( controlled, measured work from Kurt Ehrmann ) , who has worked hard to get where he is and has not followed Willy's ideas that personality 'wins the day': 'After all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive.'
Miller's play, which is certainly an indictment of capitalism at the expense of the human spirit, is also about a family cast adrift. The Lomans are thrown together, pulled apart, and hurled in different directions throughout the course of their final hours together. Sons Biff ( Robert McLean ) and Happy ( Ryan Bollettino ) are the wasted byproducts of their father's illusions: Biff is a thief and drifter who doesn't realize until the end that there is nothing wrong with his desire to be something other than the businessman his father dreams of; and Happy is unable to connect on any significant level due to his wounded perceptions of what it means to love and be loved. Loman's wife, Linda ( McGough's real-life wife, Donna in a terrific, understated performance ) loves her husband beyond reason, and is left with almost nothing as a reward for her devotion.
This isn't a happy play; it's sad, depressing, and tragic. And, its awful, cathartic final 15 minutes offers no hope, only irony and bitterness. But it's probably one the best plays to come out of the canon of American drama ( there is not one wasted word in Miller's script ) and one of the most affecting. In the hands of artful directors like Graney, Death of a Salesman is a powerful, profound experience for any audience.