Death of a Salesman
Soulpepper resurrects this classic story of the failure of the American Dream.
Arthur Miller’s bleak Death of a Salesman was one of those plays I could never get into in high school. But in Soulpepper’s well-acted and carefully paced rendition, the story is enlivened into something more haunting and affecting – even if it’s still difficult to truly sympathize for the main characters.
Set in 1940s America, the famous story revolves around Willy Loman (Joseph Ziegler), a fading salesman who is obsessed with the idea that being liked – not hard work or strength of character – is the key to success. He idolizes his deceased brother Ben, who amassed a fortune through diamonds, and has pushed such misplaced values on his sons throughout their childhoods – especially the handsome and athletic Biff (Ari Cohen).
But in the present the relationship between father and son has long broken down, for reasons neither will reveal, and Willy is slowly losing the will to live as he becomes more and more obsolete in his job. Any chances at success – for him, or by living vicariously through his sons – are slipping away.
Despite some very depressing source material, Soulpepper’s Death of a Salesman, directed by the company’s founding artistic director Albert Schultz, is thought-provoking but never too heavy. Much of the credit goes to the cast: Ziegler fully fleshes out his pitiable character and slides fluidly between moments of desperation, bare insecurity, and blind hope, excelling at the squirm-inducing moments when Willy is brought to his lowest. As his onstage (and real-life) wife, Nancy Palk’s put-upon Linda Loman has more spine than what Miller gives her in the original play her character knows who she married, and there’s something admirable in the way she defends her husband to their sons, despite his betrayals. As their younger son, Happy, Tim Campbell gradually lets the more despicable aspects of his character seep through a happy-go-lucky veneer.
The weakest point is Ari Cohen as Biff: he does well in moments of quiet tension but isn’t quite so convincing during his emotional outbursts. One of the dramatic peaks of the play (at least for me) – when we discover the root of the conflict between him and his father – is undermined by an incredibly fake fit of crying that has, unfortunately, a near-comical effect.
The lighting is extremely evocative, adding mood and dimension to a rather cramped set (two stories, including bedrooms, a kitchen, and a garden are compressed into a tight space), and though you certainly feel all three hours of running time – Salesman is not the kind of play that flies by – the pacing is slow but doesn’t drag.
In all, this version affects on more of an intellectual than an emotional level. It’s hard to feel for a character like Willy, when his problems – both real and imagined – are largely of his own making, but each character’s flaws feel thoroughly human, and despite the great divide in time and setting, the warnings and misplaced values at the core of Salesman continue to resonate.
Death of a Salesman runs until Nov. 20 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts. For more information, visit www.soulpepper.ca.