This past weekend, Hinman Production Company (HPC) staged a four-show run of one of the masterpieces of American theater, Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.”
“Death of a Salesman” isn’t really a play about a salesman, according to director Ariane Barrie-Stern, a freshman double-majoring in theatre and psychology. It’s about a father, son, mother, brother and, of course, the essence of the American dream. At the center of the play is the Loman family coming to terms with the end of an era. The patriarch, the “great” Willy Loman, is starting to realize that he was never really as “great” as he made himself out to be. He puts all his faith and encouragement into a son that spites him for it. With his mind beginning to slip and death coming near, the play depicts the life of a dying man who never achieved his dreams and who sacrificed his own time for his children’s success.
The works of Miller, a great American playwright in his day, have often transcended time, always finding a place in American culture and high school syllabi. After its 1949 release, “Death of a Salesman” won both the Pulitzer Prize in Drama and the Tony Award for best play. Since then, it has won three additional Tony Awards for subsequent Broadway revivals.
When putting on a show as sophisticated as “Death of a Salesman,” the HPC had a laundry list of challenges to overcome. Willy Loman is 60 and at the end of his long, industrious life. The actors, on the other hand, are twenty-something college students at the beginning of life’s journey. Despite the age disparity, Matthew Long, a freshman majoring in English, gave a convincing, emotionally-driven performance as Willy Loman.
While the casting across the board wasn’t all that consistent, HPC really hit it where it counted: The Lomans. Ryan Hart (Happy Loman) and Josh Wallner (Biff Loman), played off each other like genuine brothers. Sydney Fusto, who played Linda Loman (the mother), delivered some of the more important and intense scenes with near perfection. All in all, where family was concerned, it was a very believable performance.
“Death of a Salesman” is known for its minimal yet complex stage structure. As far as set design goes, HPC nailed it. From the sophisticated layout to the time-appropriate furnishings, the stage crew made the stage feel like a home. Historically, the HPC has always done a very good job working with their limited sets and resources, and they certainly didn’t disappoint this time.
The entire Loman household is constantly on stage, with invisible divisions separating the brothers’ childhood bedroom, Willy and Linda’s bedroom and the kitchen. The actors also did a fantastic job at working with these invisible divisions. For example, in one scene the brothers (now in their 30s) are awake in their old bedroom, smoking and talking about the old days. Meanwhile, “downstairs,” Willy sits at the dining room table murmuring to himself, occasionally breaking off into flashbacks.
The flashbacks in “Death of a Salesman” are often integrated into the current storyline. Willy might be talking to his neighbor while hallucinating that his dead brother is also with him, reenacting a conversation they had years prior. Though this can be confusing when reading the play for the first time, the actors delivered those scenes with ease and confidence.
The performances weren’t perfect, but great where it counted. While the actors sometimes struggled in delivering some of the more fast-paced dialogue (which is a staple of the show), they played off of each other’s characters in a way that made it seem natural. The casting, while inconsistent, really didn’t get in the way of the more powerful scenes. All in all, HPC’s “Death of a Salesman” revival was successful, enjoyable and true to the original work.