At the end of Act I in the Grand Theatre’s knockout production of “Death of a Salesman,” director Mark Fossen creates an iconic stage picture. Willy Loman stares out the window stage right; his wife, Linda, sits bewildered on their bed; son Happy is alone in the upstairs bedroom; and son Biff sits at the kitchen table holding the rubber pipe Willy plans to use to kill himself.
This moment encapsulates the problem that plagues this family: Each member is isolated, totally unable to communicate with the others. The richness of Arthur Miller’s multilayered play comes from examining how they got that way.
Miller’s definitive portrait of the failure of the American dream and its destructive impact on the members of a typical post-World War II family explores so many interrelated themes and creates such complex, deeply human characters that it is difficult to compress into a brief review. Willy is a man facing defeat as old age closes in. “He had all the wrong dreams. He never knew who he was,” Biff says. Willy’s friend Charley replies, “A salesman is got to dream…he’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back—that’s an earthquake.”
Willy’s tragedy perches precariously between these paradoxical extremes. It is due to a combination of personal limitations and those imposed by a changing world that he recognizes but is unable to adjust to. Willy grounded his career in maxims like “personality always wins the day,” “be liked, and you will never want,” and “start big, and you will end big.” But in the America where he now lives, as boss Howard reminds him, “business is business.” His brother, Ben, followed his own path and made a success in that earlier world, but the play questions whether Willy could ever have done that.
Willy boxes his two sons into the same hollow dream, and neither is thriving. “…all I’ve ever done is to waste my life,” Biff says. And Happy admits, “I don’t know what the hell I’m working for.” The gap between Biff and Willy is more crucial because the two once idolized each other until a past incident eroded that trust. Happy is locked into his way of life, but Biff realizes, “…all I want is out there, waiting for me the minute I say I know who I am! Why can’t I say that?”
The Grand’s production provides powerful, fully realized creations of these characters.
Richard Scott’s blustering volcano of a Willy prowls the stage, vacillating between self-confidence and self-doubt. Linda (Anita Booher) fuses loving loyalty to her husband with steely-eyed appraisals of the shifting family situation. Rusty Bringhurst’s Happy is charming and manipulative while keeping us aware he is the outsider in this family, and every pore of Daniel Beecher’s body breathes Biff. Whether energetically exulting in his popularity in the flashbacks, agonizing over his prodigal past or uncertain future, or breaking down in his confrontations with his father, Beecher meets every acting challenge with grace and skill. Stein Erickson (Bernard), Elizabeth Golden (the Woman), David Hanson (Charley), and Richard Scharine (Ben) shine in the supporting cast.
Fossen’s direction manages pace and emotion with admirable ease. And Keven Myhre’s simple wooden, starkly framed set and Jeff Sturgis’ warm area lighting create an intimate space for the action on the Grand’s cavernous stage. Joe Killian’s sound design links past and present and smoothly bridges scenes. Amanda Reiser’s costumes provide a nostalgic period feel.
Thanks to the complex human questions it ponders, Miller’s classic play has lost none of its punch or relevance, and this production gives loving attention to them all. Now people just have to go and see it.
Death of a Salesman
P The Grand Theatre offers a powerful production of classic play.
When • Reviewed Mar. 7. Continues Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. through Mar. 23. Saturday matinees at 2 p.m. and an added performance Wednesday, Mar. 13, at 7:30 p.m.
Where • Grand Theatre on the South High campus of Salt Lake Community College, 1575 South State St., Salt Lake City
Tickets • $10 to $24 with discounts for students, seniors, and groups. Call 801-957-3322 or visit www.the-grand.org for tickets and information.
Running time • Two hours and 45 minutes (including an intermission)