Coleman (l.) is Willy Loman and Christopher Purdy is Howard Wagner in "Death of a Salesman."
Death of a Salesman, the classic play by Arthur Miller, is the tragic story of Willy Loman, a man who pursued “the wrong American dream” and suffered greatly for it. The traveling salesman can no longer support his family, command the respect of his peers, or look forward to a promising future for his sons. He contemplates suicide rather than live with his failure.
The Strollers Theatre production, which plays at the Bartell Theatre through May 16, follows the end of Loman’s career and life.
The role of Willy Loman is complex: His desperate, frightened mind vacillates between the past and the present, his successes and disappointments, the truth and the inflated stories he creates. As Willy, Coleman brings a heavy world-weariness to the part, punctuated by moments of frustration and despair. Unfortunately, he does not vary his delivery to indicate Willy’s state of mind. Clearer distinctions between his lucid moments, his paranoid musings and his manic declarations would have added more levels to the character and variation to his scenes.
As Linda, Willy’s long-suffering wife, Jamie England is all heart. Her devotion and admiration for her husband are unshakeable, even as her fear for Willy’s future causes her to lash out at her sons, Biff and Happy. England’s initial reaction to Willy’s death and her stone-faced resolve at his funeral were truly chilling moments in an emotion-filled evening.
Jordan Peterson brings a quiet brooding to the disillusioned Biff, the former golden-boy athlete who believed in Willy’s grandiose dreams. His sullen disappointment in their mutual failings finally explodes at the end of the play, revealing enormous pain along with real love for the father he once idolized.
Rounding out the family, as Happy, Joshua Paffel oozes the charm and charisma of a master salesman that his father lacks. The perennially overlooked younger brother, he glad-hands and smiles, fabricating stories to woo women into meaningless encounters, trying to keep peace in the rapidly disintegrating family.
Britton Rea pours a great deal of personality into two smaller roles: Bernard, the nerdy next-door neighbor who transforms from a math geek to a very successful lawyer; and the waiter who is Happy’s go-to man when he is out on the town. Likewise, as Bernard’s father Charlie, Joseph Lutz brings an affable, gentleness to his role as Willy’s friend, protector and foil. Christopher Purdy cuts a menacing and debonair figure as Uncle Ben, the almost mythical older brother who struck it rich in the diamond mines of Africa as a young adventurer.
Christopher William Wolter’s direction of this epic is inventive, but at times it is too literal and generally uneven. Wolter opens the play with a scene that does not appear in the script, an expressionistic glimpse into Willy’s mental state as he aborts a business trip. As he creeps home in his car, driving 10 miles per hour late at night, he is overcome by his own fears and delusions, accompanied by the cruel laughter of the rest of the cast. It’s interesting, but unnecessary in a play that is already three hours long.
Another odd choice was to cast the same actress (Jamie England) as both Willy’s wife Linda, and the woman he has an affair with while on the road. England makes strong body language and vocal choices to differentiate the characters, but it’s still more confusing to blend the two women in Willy’s life than to allow them to inhabit their own spaces.
Finally, Wolter allows the play to be overwhelmed by its set pieces. The scenes painted on three walls on the Evjue space (by Shannon Heibler), in the garish, dripping colors of graffiti, are evocative: Generic high-rise buildings close in on the Loman home, blocking out the sun and stars while consuming the green space that Willy craves. But the extensive and frequently noisy scene changes involving multiple tables, chairs, beds, desks, pillows, blankets and tablecloths disrupt the action of the play. In a few instances Wolter attempts to fill these blackouts with snippets of story, but they were inconsistent and half-hearted.
Despite these challenges, Strollers’ strong cast demonstrates that the play truly deserves the title “classic.” Death of a Salesman is perhaps Arthur Miller’s best work, and it is as relevant and thought-provoking as it is heartbreaking.