Death of a Salesman

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Death of a Salesman

Kevin K. James, Tom McBeath, Bob Frazer. Photo by Emily Cooper.Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
Directed by John Cooper
Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company
Vancouver Playhouse
Feb 12 to Mar 5, 2011

Vancouver, BC: If the dream of a young male actor is to play Hamlet, then Willy Loman would be the dream role for a theatre veteran.

In what must be one of the virtuoso performances of his career, Tom McBeath does not merely play Willy Loman. He is Willy Loman; a sad, pathetic, bone-weary 63 year old road salesman, who can no longer distinguish between the incomprehensible real world he inhabits, and the fantasy world he has built in his own mind. As Loman flashed back and forth between reality and and his dream world,  there was not a micro-second in which McBeath did not carry me with him, often causing an errant tear to leak onto my  cheeks. 

Donna Belleville and Tom McBeath. Photo by Emily CooperDaniel Arnold, Erik Keenleyside and Tom McBeath. Photo by Emily Cooper.Under John Cooper's direction a stellar cast rises to McBeath's challenge with deeply moving performances.  Biff (Bob Frazer) and the ironically nicknamed Happy (Kevin James), provide frighteningly desperate examples of how parental control, masquerading as misdirected "love" can destroy a family.

At times, as a mother, my heart fairly ached for second son, Happy, always in the shadow of Willy's ambition for Biff.  And Biff - well - Frazer's portrayal of Biff's struggle to exist in his own reality necessitated more surreptitious wiping away of tears.

Through all this Donna Belleville's characterization of  Willy's wife Linda walks a delicate line between co-participant in the family's destruction by supporting Willy's fantasies, and  loving wife who recognizes the truth, yet can't bring herself to make Willy face it.  

Arthur Miller's play has lost nothing of its capacity to move an audience, as shown by the well deserved standing ovation on opening night. Though first produced on Broadway n 1949 and though the story is set largely in post-war New York,  the work has a timelessness about it. 

Who among us does not dream of a wonderful future for our children?  And who has not at times  tried to "guide" them in directions we think important?  Who has never given a thought as to who one is or what is one's purpose in life?  And who among the over 50 crowd can watch Willy become distracted and repeatedly lose himself in time and space... and not think about early Alzheimer's disease? 

Other aspects of the play are equally fascinating to me. I first really seriously studied this play in a great course I took at UBC about  American Theatre.  With Loman created as a failed traveling salesman representing  middle class America, his failure and that of his sons are often taken as an indictment of the economic aspirations of capitalism  and the American Dream.  Yet I remember thinking at the time, that in many ways this play illustrated the opposite.

Clearly the dream was there for the taking for those who chose to pursue it through hard work and their own efforts. Loman corrupted the dream- he was what Ayn Rand would have termed "a second-hander" - a man who judged or valued himself not by his own work and his own abilities, but rather by how others saw him and how many people liked him.

Consider Bernard (Daniel Arnold)  the hardworking un-athletic son of Charley (Eric Keenleyside), the neighbour who in a rare moment of clarity Willy realizes is his only friend. While Biff, the high school football hero, buys into Willy's delusion about  Biff's importance, and also deludes himself that taking things that do not belong to him is not stealing, Bernard gets himself a law degree, and we see him heading off with a tennis racquet in his hands.

Bob Frazer, Anner Cummer, Genevieve Fleming, Kevin James. Photo by Emily CooperWhat about Howard (Sean Devine), Willy's boss who tosses him out on the street without a second's thought? Isn't he a mean capitalist?  My take is that  Howard is  just a thoughtless, preoccupied, nasty man and would be the same regardless of the socio-economic system he lived in.

Rounding out the cast, Norman Browning plays Uncle Ben, Willy's long deceased older brother,
Anna Cummer - Jenny (Charley's Secretary) and  Letta,  Genevieve Fleming plays Miss Forsythe,  Dawn Petten - The Woman, and Jameson Parker plays Stanley, the waiter.

The production values in this piece are also excellent. You can get a glimpse of Alison Green's glorious hats and dresses as they sit and chat with the snazzly dressed Biff and Happy. Pam Johnson's multi-story house, is dwarfed between the high rise apartment buildings that have encroached on the Lomans' little lot much has life has crowded in on Willy and narrowed his options till he sees only one way out. Lighting design is by Gerald King, and the original music by Steve Thomas.

This production of Death of A Salesman comes onto my list of top ten productions thatI have seen from the Playhouse, pretty close to the top. I highly recommend that you get your tickets soon.

For tickets: Vancouver Playhouse Box Office 604-873-3311 or book online

Also watch this site for a trivia contest for a pair of tickets to Death of A Salesman. The contest will open this weekend.