Loman on the Totem Pole

No melodramatic excess has been spared, no subtlety left unexploded in this amateur production of Death of a Salesman.

Death of a Salesman

I used to imagine the life of a theater reviewer to be totally glamorous: The scintillating first-night conversations with famous actors, directors, and wealthy patrons of the arts. The chardonnay and snacks. The cup of tea steaming beside my keyboard as I lauded a performance. The truth has proven itself more complicated: It’s hard taking legible notes in the dark, sometimes the cookies in the lobby are really bad, and my tea was replaced long ago by frozen burritos and candy bars. But far worse than any of that is trying to describe a performance that just didn’t work for me at all, especially when it was by an amateur company. I once vowed to strictly ration the number of times I could use the phrase “the actors were certainly enthusiastic,” but the question remains: should a critic judge the performances of amateur groups by a different standard than those of professional companies? It’s kinder, perhaps, to write a review that says, “The actors seemed to know all their lines and were usually audible” than to pan the thing outright. But is it fair to the reader who might be deciding whether or not to see the show–or, indeed, to actors and a director, who might be able to use more probing feedback?Actors Ensemble of Berkeley’s current staging of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman presents just such a dilemma. In fact, Salesman–Miller’s snapshot of a family immersed in loving lies and self-deception–is performed somewhere in the world every single day because it speaks across time, culture, and space. It’s as relevant now as it was in 1949. It’s also written in such a way that if one actor goes overboard, the whole thing sinks. Unfortunately, under John Dahlen’s direction at the Live Oak Theatre, there is a near-constant sound of splashing as actors hit the water. No melodramatic excess has been spared, no subtlety left unexploded, and the end result is loud, relentless, and confusing. Which is a shame, in light of the exciting decision to cast only African-American actors–a decision that could have brought fresh depth and meaning to so well-known a work.

Dahlen’s staging is faithful to the text right down to the design and the stage directions, a loyalty that often strains the performance as a whole. He might improve his actors’ chances if he trimmed things like the Woman’s off-stage laughter (excessive and false-sounding), let Linda drop her “my dear”s or replace them with something she could do with conviction, and pulled the plug on some of the dreadful flute music–even if the script does call for it. Having the same actors play Willy Loman’s sons and nephew as both teenagers and adults doesn’t work here: while they’re generally fine as adults, once the wigs go on (askew) for the flashbacks, the whole illusion falls apart. The staged crying was wholly unconvincing, and could have been traded for subtler, more manageable expressions. At least the changes made to update the play from the late ’40s to the late ’70s work–even the references to “the war” continue to make sense, substituting ‘Nam for WWII–and the set is well designed.

Then there is the delicate question of the main character. As noted by producer Harold Clurman, who was the first to stage much of Miller’s work, Loman is not schizophrenic, but he is falling apart. Bruce Williams’ Loman lacks subtlety–a mass of nervous tics and twitches, his deterioration is so overplayed as to occasionally border on the comic. In the performance I saw, throughout the first act and much of the second his delivery lacked variation and range, giving everything the same emotional weight. Perhaps it was opening-night nerves, but it was only near the end, when Loman realizes how much his sons care about him, that Williams slowed down and really seemed to be reacting in character to what was happening in both his inner and outer worlds.

Williams is not alone in his struggle; many of the actors apparently didn’t have enough time to absorb their characters. The actor playing Willy’s phantasmal brother Ben was pretty much incomprehensible, Linda was a cipher except in scenes with her sons (shadowiness being the curse of many Miller heroines), and Eric Abrams as Biff was uneven. Wahile Abrams–who has a big, wonderful voice–simmers effectively as a brooding, angry adult, his younger Biff is a cartoon, as is William Hunter’s Bernard, who as an adult appeared to be smirking through the funeral scene.

J. Cary Irving as Hap is a real bright spot, and is the actor who best embodies his role. In Kimberly Ridgeway’s recent Prospect Place at the Black Rep, Irving didn’t get much stage time to flesh out a character, but here he does an admirable job both of portraying the younger brother and of providing crucial support to the others. As a more experienced actor who doesn’t need to grapple with the mechanics, Irving spends less time trying to figure out how to “be” Hap and more on working effectively with the ensemble.

A production’s amateur status is not a death sentence; works staged by amateur companies often shine with vivacity and inventiveness that more established companies lack. There is a good play somewhere in the chaos of this production, if Dahlen can figure out how to release it. Perhaps by taking more chances with the text and working more closely with his actors, he can focus all that energy to truly bring “a new look and feel” to Miller’s classic.