Death of a Salesman is a cherished American classic. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1949, has had Broadway incarnations since, and helped to catapult author Arthur Miller into the stratosphere of our most esteemed playwrights. Director Mike Nichols is the perfect choice to direct this masterpiece for a contemporary audience. While staying faithful to the original set design by Jo Meilziner, and keeping the tone of the play intact, he manages to move along the dialogue and the action, and in so doing, shakes off the cobwebs that often cling to plays of this era. Far from being museum pieces, the characters in this production are real people, and we react to them as if they could be the family next door.
Nichols has assembled as fine a cast as the Broadway stage has seen in many seasons. Philip Seymour Hoffman is, as has been noted elsewhere, too young to play Willy Loman. But hearing that this washed-up Brooklyn salesman is sixty years old is close to a laugh line today. Hoffman brings a vitality to the work, which contrasts the vibrant Willy of old with the beaten down picture of exhaustion he is at the beginning of the show. Seeing him in his prime helps to frame the question of the evening: how much of what Willy remembers actually happened, and how much is taking place only in his delusions?
Andrew Garfield is an unlikely choice to play Biff, the golden boy son of Willy’s imaginings. He’s too slight, and too intense, for the Hercules/Adonis label his father uses to describe him. Was Biff ever the boy all the girls wanted? His mother tells us he was too rough, and the parents feared him. Was he a big football hero? Yes, apparently he was—in high school. His real ability was untested; Biff never went to college, because he failed his math final, and refused to go to summer school. And what leader of men would have flushed his entire future down the drain because of the disappointing episode we see at the end of the play?
Garfield ably conveys Biff’s underlying instability, and gives a different slant to Willy’s view of him. Let’s not forget that Nichols is the man who cast against type by choosing Dustin Hoffman to play the golden boy in The Graduate, and that worked out pretty well for all concerned.
It’s a lagniappe for the audience to see a fine actor like John Glover in the small role of Ben, Willy’s idealized but emotionally distant older brother. Tanned, trim, dashing, and rich, Ben is everything Willy is not. It’s also a lovely gift to discover Finn Wittrock, who is perfect as Happy, the son who’s deeply hurt by Willy’s disinterest, but hiding it with a show of cheery bravado.
In fact, all the actors are superb, whether their roles are large or small. My one criticism is that there’s way too much yelling and crying, especially toward the end of the play. Watching a performer’s nose drip is almost guaranteed to take spectators out of the moment.
Special praise must be given to Linda Emond. By making Linda Loman a strong woman who could easily take control, rather than the doormat most actresses present, she proves what I’ve always suspected. Contrary to popular belief, Linda Loman is a bitch. She abdicates all responsibility for creating the mess her family has become. She lays as heavy a guilt trip on her sons as has ever been seen outside of Greek Tragedy. She pulls the classic dysfunctional family move in putting son Biff in the middle of the bullying father who continually tells his wife to be quiet, and the long suffering mom who is clearly the victim of emotional abuse. She then flips the situation by excoriating her son for causing his father grief.
In fact, throughout the entire play, she berates her sons. She tells Biff point blank that Willy is worse when he’s around, but then announces that he’s not welcome just coming to see her; he also has to love and respect the father who repeatedly calls him a bum. She announces that Willy is trying to kill himself, and tell Biff that if he’s nice, “You’ll save your father’s life.” Ultimately, she calls her son a louse, and throws him out of the house, even as she’s manipulated her thirty-four year old to stay in his childhood home. Run Biff, run!
Linda announces to her sons that “Attention must be paid.” Interesting choice for a woman who has run her life and her family on the philosophy of I don’t see it, I don’t hear it, we never discuss it, it doesn’t exist. Linda knows so much she chooses ignore, the better not to have to step up and actually change the situation. She hears Willy talking to himself, but pretends she doesn’t. She knows that the insurance company has ruled that Willy’s car hasn’t crashed by accident, not to mention the fact that she discovers that he’s planning to commit suicide. She burdens her sons with this knowledge, but not her husband. There’s not even a suggestion that the worn out old guy should schedule an appointment with his doctor.
Linda tells her boys their father is a little man, not of the best character. She also knows that he can be violent. Willy confesses that he’s struck a colleague for using the word “walrus.” He threatens to whip and beat Biff when he flees after finding his father with another woman. So Linda, what do you think happened to those stockings you were promised? And why, in the decade and half since Biff gave up on his dreams, have you never wondered what happened that night in Boston?
Can it be that underneath all the expressed concern for her husband’s pride, Linda is just plain lazy? She well understands that Charley, the next door neighbor, has been giving Willy the money they need to live. Charley has also offered Willy a job, which he refuses to take. The year is 1949, not 1849. There are plenty of women in the work force. Has Linda ever considered going to the local Woolworth’s and asking for employment? Back in the day, very little education was needed to be an elementary school teacher, and none at all to be a lunch lady. With a husband on the road most of the time, and no children in the house, what’s preventing Linda from finding a job to help the family finances?
If Hap has turned into “a philandering bum,” he came by his total disrespect for women by following his father’s example. If Hap and Biff are, in Linda’s words,“ ungrateful sons, animals,” maybe learning some values in their formative years from their parents might have helped. As Biff states, the truth was never told in the Loman household. Both Biff and Willy were filled with hot air, and Happy was shoved into the background.
The mother is the heart and soul of the family. Linda Loman abdicated her role early in the game, and then spends her life blaming her children for the chaos all around her. Yes, attention must be paid; and then you recognize the problems, and try to fix them. Sorry, Linda; sweeping your family’s dysfunction under the rug doesn’t count as good housekeeping.
Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman
Ethel Barrymore Theatre
243 West 47th Street
Through June 2, 2012
Photos by Brigitte Lacombe
Michall Jeffers is an accomplished Cultural Journalist. She writes extensively, both in print and online. Her eponymous cable TV show is syndicated throughout the tri-state area, and features celebrity interviews, reviews, and commentary. She is a voting member of Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, American Theatre Critics Association, and International Association of Theatre Critics.