It is hard to acknowledge something as profoundly masculine and steeped in caricatures as Arthur Miller’s milestone piece, Death of Salesman could evoke an emotionally unhinged response in me. To clarify, and to be fair, when I categorize the staple play as “masculine,” I in no way intend to demean it’s worth or indicate that texts that are male-centric lack depth or a certain type of emotional adroitness by nature. Rather, Miller’s work on the psychological, financial, physical and familial/relational decay of the central character, Willie Loman, is very specifically and poignantly male—it is one of the few plays that acutely examines and rips apart the subtle defenses (and their violent dissolutions) created by men, especially men within a family dynamic to safeguard against their vulnerabilities in a myriad of realms. It is outstandingly emotionally complex, but not particularly relatable. Indeed, Death of Salesman almost functions like a masculinized Our Town—the two plays exist as relics, not quite archaic, but operating on an emotional planes which are inextricably bound to a time, set of sensibilities, and sense of identity that is not wholly accessible to a modernizing audience base.
Left to right: Shaun Hall and Zach Grenier in Death of a Salesman. Photo by Michael Henninger
Thus, I was pleasantly if not disquietingly surprised to be so floored and intimately riveted to Pittsburgh Public Theater’s recent production of Death of Salesman, directed by Mary B. Robinson. The play is remarkable in how it maintains an equilibrium of staggering length (roughly three hours) and searing, close examination of individual psyches. The staging helps significantly with this excellent juxtaposition of scale, as the somber stage, ensconced in masterfully engineered lighting, conveys the perfect amount of alienated examination—the audience is both constantly immersed in the fabric of the lives of the characters vis-à-vis their home décor and living arrangements, and also constantly aware of the dissolution within the home and between the characters that is actively happening throughout the play. Minimalist in execution, the scenic producer, James Noone, should be applauded for putting forth a set that eloquently conveys the physical and domestic dimensions of a familial and individual disintegration and agony.
Much of the success of the show, however, should be attributed to the absolutely flawless performances of the actors recreating the piece. A certain specific portion of my praise must be allotted to the two men cast as Happy and Biff, Willy’s two existentially haphazard sons, Happy and Biff embody and satisfy very specific, metaphoric roles in the play. Both boys “fulfill” Willy’s thwarted destiny, either in terms of their unchecked libidinousness, reckless spending habits, or inabilities to be a better version of their faltering father. Most poignant is perhaps Biff Loman, played by Alex Mickiewicz, who embodies the abnegated vulnerability in Willie. Mickiewicz so beautifully conveys in his performance what I found most devastating about this iteration of the show—the excruciating examination of what happens to the man whose entire world and self is his children and career, a man whose sense of self is entirely externalized and fragmented, and what happens to the individuals around that man as he falls apart. Mickiewicz’s Biff is the prototypical jock, Adonis-esque apple of his father’s eye who starts to demonstrate cracks in his good ol boy persona—outbursts in school, failing classes, implicit abuse of the girls who worship him. And yet his acting out, both in the present moment of the shows and flashbacks, is clearly a manifestation of his inability to access and articulate his emotions. He is perpetually in limbo, burdened by the awareness of his own sensitivity and vulnerability, but primed and trapped in his own innate brutishness. His complicated kindness for his father is more painful given his own tempestuous relationship with his inner self (that is ultimately exacerbated by his father’s coddling and conditioning).
Left to right: Alex Mickiewicz, Zach Grenier and Maxwell Eddy in Death of a Salesman. Photo by Michael Henninger
An additional, maybe somewhat obvious, acknowledgement should be given to the heavy-hitter of the show, big-screen frequenter (on such shows as The Good Wife) and Tony-nominee Zach Grenier. Grenier’s performance, though expert in showing the nuances of Willie’s crumbling psychology, is transcendent explicating the flawed masculinity that is inherent to the character. Grenier’s Loman is not simply a case study of the downfall of the American industrial man. His performance elevates Willie to the realm of tragic hero (perhaps minus the hero aspect), so rent apart by the multifarious issues left unresolved in his identity and sense of self that he is utterly destroyed as the world he tried to save and preserve dissolves around him. Death of Salesman, is utterly crushing, a piece replete with astronomical talent and devastating introspection into the ruination of self predicated on artificial identities.
Death of a Salesman is running through May 21st at the O’Reilly Theater and ticket information can be found here.