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Emotionally draining, intellectually satisfying DEATH OF A SALESMAN @ Ensemble

Roy Berko

(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

Arthur Miller’s DEATH OF A SALESMAN, the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning drama, now on stage at Ensemble Theatre, is universally recognized as one of, if not the greatest modern American play.   Others that are recognized as top classic plays are LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT (Eugene O’Neil),  STREET CAR NAMED DESIRE (Tennessee Williams), OUR TOWN (Thornton Wilder), and WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF (Edward Albee).

Miller, the son of a wealthy Jewish manufacturer, watched as his father’s fortunes disappeared during the depression.  Because of this, much of his writing focuses on anxiety, insecurity, and personal achievement.  Constantly, Miller asks, “What is the right way to live?”  This theme is apparent in such works ALL MY SONS, THE CRUCIBLE and THE PRICE.

Arthur Miller is one of the few playwrights who has successfully spanned the post-World War II era into the late 20th century.

Critics often have difficulty classifying Miller’s writing.  The designations span such terms as social criticism, modern tragedy and psychological study.

The University of Michigan graduate seldom gives answers, he asks questions.  As is the case with many Jewish thinkers and writers, based on years of being involved in the Talmudic tradition of education which asks questions rather than giving solutions, Miller presents and leaves it to the reader/viewer to answer and learn from the experience.

Miller, who is well-versed in theater techniques as well as dramatic literature, often instructs on set and lighting factors, in how to  stage his plays. In DEATH OF A SALESMAN, he uses flashbacks, and advises set directors, when possible, to use scrim material, which allows characters to appear behind what appear to be solid walls, to enter the scene, but are still outside the action.  This way, past life and present life meet, but don’t collide.   Some technical directors, as is the case at Ensemble, attempt to use lighting effects to create that illusion.

It is interesting to note that in the script, Miller describes the setting to be a small house, surrounded by high apartments, which blocks out the sun from the residence.  It describes his Brooklyn boyhood home which was encroached upon by buildings.

Miller uses the concept of the modern tragedy in developing the story.  Willy, the central character, lives a life of illusions and lies to create a world of “success,” but, in the end, as with most of his life, he dies with a false dream.  The more Willy makes up his personal lies, and engages in illusion, the harder it is for him to face reality.  He exits as a tragic character who is to be pitied, not praised.

DEATH OF A SALESMAN places the spotlight on Willy Loman, an everyman who has eked out a living as a mediocre salesman by traveling his territory attempting to get merchants to buy his goods.   Living with the philosophy that people who are well-liked will be happy, he obsesses in his desire to teach his son, “Biff,” a proficient athlete, that he has to be a winner.   Much of Willy’s world disappears as Biff, through a series of bad decisions, based on the false beliefs taught by Willie, fails to achieve “greatness.”  Interestingly, as the play concludes, it appears that only Biff, not Willie’s wife, Linda, nor his son, Hap, has learned the futility of Willie’s life and death.

Like all classics, the themes in DEATH OF A SALESMAN still ring true today. Its harsh criticism of American capitalism may not be quite as shocking as it was when the play first premiered, but with the explosion of the housing bubble and numerous business shams, the concept still holds up.  His message of living with a set of false values rings clear.

The play’s requiem, takes place at Willy’s newly dug graveside.  Only the family and two neighbors are in attendance.   None of Willy’s supposed minions of business associates are there.

As the play reaches its climax, Biff encourages Hap to come west with him to start fresh lives.  Hap refuses, unable to grasp the reality of Willy’s false philosophy of life.  He declares that he will stick in New York to validate Willy’s life and death.  Linda, who has acted as Willy’s enabler, looks into his graves and asks him for forgiveness for being unable to cry, and wonders aloud why he has ended his life when, after she has made the last payment on their house, “We’re free and clear.”

Ensemble’s DEATH OF A SALESMAN is emotionally draining and intellectually satisfying.  Director Celeste Cosentino has honed a fine production that develops Miller’s intent and purpose.

Greg White creates a Willy who lives life as an illusion.   Some actors portray the character with strong emotional highs and lows, others with brooding rage.  White travels a path of consistent low-key almost depressed control.  Even in his strong emotional scenes, his voice never becomes a shout.  The interpretation is very affecting.

Keith Stevens nicely textures the role of Biff, showing both stubborn misguided pride and an evolving understanding of who he is and how he got there.  The scene where he finds Willy in a hotel room with a company secretary is heartbreaking.

Mary Alice Beck underplays Linda so well that it becomes clear that she is blind to Willy’s weaknesses and false delusions, and enables him out of unwavering love.  Her “honor must be paid” speech is compelling, as is her exposing Willy’s act of putting a hose on the natural gas line in the basement for a potential suicide attempt.

Steven Hood creates a ghost-like, compelling aura as Uncle Ben, the illusion Willy turns to in periods of despair.

Johnathon Jackson creates in Hap, Biff’s younger brother, a failed young man who has mainly been ignored by Willy, a playboy who, like Willie, is living false dreams.

Joseph Milan (Charley) and James Rankin (Bernard) nicely portray the real successful men, who contrast with Willy’s life of false illusions.  The scene in which Charlie reveals to Willy that his son, Bernard, is going to plead a case before the Supreme Court, is a shining example of the differences between Willy’s need to create importance by making-up hoped for dreams, and Charlie and Bernard’s quiet acceptance of what comes from life when you act, rather than fantasize.

Other than some confusing lighting effects, the technical aspects of the show are well executed.  Especially effective are the pictures of the apartment buildings surrounding and sucking the air out of the Loman residence.

Capsule judgment:  DEATH OF A SALESMAN is one of America’s great play scripts.  The classic gets an excellent production at Ensemble.  As the script gets few present-day productions, anyone who has never seen the play on stage, or those who need another viewing to evaluate their own philosophical life path, should definitely see this production.

DEATH OF A SALESMAN runs Thursdays through Sundays from September 18-October 11, 2015 at Ensemble’s Playground Theatre, housed in the former  Coventry School, 2843 Washington Blvd, Cleveland Heights.  For tickets call 216-321-2930 or go online to