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Death of a Salesman

In the midst of a government shutdown by the economic powers-that-be, we are reminded once again why Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman remains the quintessential drama of life in these United States: it is an unflinching portrait of man and his family caught in the vice-grip of a society run by those who put profits above people.

Mike Hartman as Willie Loman
Mike Hartman as Willie Loman
Photo: Jennifer M Koskinen
While the play has always been recognized for its stream-of-consciousness approach to Willie Loman's story, director Anthony Powell takes this to dazzling revelatory heights in the Denver Center Theatre Company's current production. One key element in this brilliant staging is the in-the-round Space Theatre itself, which ends up serving as a perfect metaphor for Willie's non-linear world. Add Charles R. MacLeod's sublime lighting and Lisa M. Orzolek's elegantly simple set and what we have is a perfect lens through which to experience Willie's increasingly desperate state.

The central force in this maelstrom of lies and delusions is Willie himself. In what will go down as one of Mike Hartman's greatest performances, we are irresistibly grabbed and thoroughly transformed. Those who have previously experienced Willie's ride, and know the dread that faces them, will find new meaning as Hartman seamlessly shifts states-of-mind from the present to the past and back again, gradually succumbing to external and internal forces beyond Willie's power to change.

Lauren Klein as Linda Loman and Mike Hartman as Willie Loman
Lauren Klein as Linda Loman
and Mike Hartman as Willie Loman
Photo: Jennifer M Koskinen
While Willie's relationship with his family is definitely rooted in the late '40's—when chauvinism, misogyny, and bullying were rampant—we hardly conduct ourselves any better today, even if a growing minority is spreading awareness and changing behaviors.

Willie's relationship with his wife, Linda (played by Hartman's real-life partner, Lauren Klein), is an incredible portrait of the contradictions of the times. The depth of loyalty that Klein's Linda expresses for Willie is luminescent, because that is what love is. But there is much more than that to Linda, who understands Willie's psychological and emotional makeup better that anyone else. Here, Klein brings gravity-sprung-from-truth to Linda, who commands respect from her boys, Biff (John Patrick Hayden) and Happy (M. Scott McLean), and, perhaps, even Ben (John Hutton), Willie's long lost, successful older brother. Seamlessly integrating and illuminating these and other facets of Linda enables Klein to express fully the complexities of the final lines of the play.

(Left to right) John Patrick Hayden as Biff Loman and M. Scott McLean as Happy Loman
(L to R) John Patrick Hayden
as Biff Loman
and M. Scott McLean
as Happy Loman
Photo: Jennifer M Koskinen
Beyond their respect for their mother, Biff and Happy are, undeniably Willie's boys, victimized by the old man's exaggerations, fabrications, and prejudices conjured in defense of his precarious existence. Willie expects great things of Biff and, for a time, it looks like these dreams may be realized, but a couple of events at the end of Biff's promising high school football career forever change their lives. Hayden and McLean handle the transition from youths to young adults with aplomb, even if their characters' maturation is stunted much like Willie's own makeup. Hayden plumbs the depths of Biff's bitter disappointment in his father and never wavers, while McLean's Happy is unflappable in his alternate universe of fast women and easy money.

Miller adds insult to the injury of the Lomans' dysfunction by contrasting their father-son relationships with that of their neighbors, Charley (Michael Santos) and Bernard (Anthony Bianco). While Willie rejects Charlie's heartfelt offers of a stable job, and Willie and Biff mock Bernard, even while Biff depends on his academic tutelage, all of this comes around to bite them, as it is Charley and Bernard who achieve the success that the Loman men so desperately seek. Santos' consummate performance captures the guilelessness and concern of a friend undeterred by Willie's intransigence toward him, as well as the conservative dogma of the day, which extols the notion that hard work is rewarded in a world where the playing field is level for all comers. Bianco deftly echoes Charley's good will and earnestness, as his Bernard never gloats over his father's and his own success.

Mike Hartman as Willie Loman and Lauren Klein as Linda Loman
Mike Hartman as Willie Loman
and Lauren Klein as Linda Loman
Photo: Jennifer M Koskinen
There is no greater example of the degree to which Willie's boys have become alienated from him than in the restaurant scene, where celebratory expectations turn to self-centered gratification, with family ties cast by the wayside. Happy's need to impress his older brother and his father leads him to show off his knack for drawing the interest of attractive women, in this case, by inviting Miss Forsythe (Adrian Egolf) and her friend, Letta (Kyra Lindsay), to their table. The women, dressed to the nines in David Kay Mickelson's refined period costumes, are out to have a good time, like Happy, and can't imagine who Willie is and why he is lost, or what could possibly be bothering Biff—much like The Woman (Kate Gleason) in Willie's extracurricular life ignores his other relationships. Even the waiter, Stanley (James O'Hagan-Murphy), sees little outside of providing service to Happy. Of course, Willie is driven to the end of his rope by Howard (Brian Shea), the son of the man who started the firm for which he has worked for decades. Shea hammers home Miller's point about the loss of personal connection in a world driven by the bottom line. Nice work all around by the ensemble.

In the end, Willie is still chasing the American dream that he sees personified in Ben, with whom he has little connection, other than a few brief visits over the years. Hutton's commanding presence and resonant delivery imbues Ben with near mythological powers over Willie.

Mike Hartman as Willie Loman
Mike Hartman as Willie Loman
Photo: Jennifer M Koskinen
Willie Loman is arguably the single most important modern dramatic character in the establishment of the common man as a tragic hero. This point-of-view may seem like a no-brainer today, but as late as the '60's and '70's, tragic heroes were still confined by the classical definition that excluded everyone who did not hold a position of power. Willie's position of power is the billions of people whom he represents, all being driven to the brink by forces pulling the strings from far above the petty divisions they orchestrate in the political, economic, religious, and media outlets.

The Denver Center Theatre Company's presentation of Death of a Salesman runs through October 20th. For tickets: 303-893-4100 or www.denvercenter.org.

Bob Bows

 

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