Death of a Salesman is a tragedy. And not in the vein of an epic historical tragedy, where danger lurks in the hands of malicious characters and kingdoms hang in the balance. It’s a personal and preventable tragedy in which a man betrays himself, and his family, by aspiring to what he thinks society demands and will reward.
If you’re a fan of theater, the 20th century “canon,” or critical reflection on mainstream values, the Ensemble Theatre Company’s current production offers a thoughtful treatise on the cost of conformity.
Played true to the original script and setting, Ensemble’s production transports us to a bygone era with on-point acting, spare, innovative scenery, effective costuming and an original score performed live on stage.
Clearly, 70 years ago it would have been revolutionary for a playwright to unflinchingly deconstruct the American Dream, and Arthur Miller having done it colloquially and eloquently warranted the Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award, innumerable revivals and ubiquity in high school curricula.
It tells the story of traveling salesman Willy Loman’s blind devotion to a societal promise that never comes to fruition.
In honor of ETC’s 40th anniversary, founding artistic director Joseph Hanreddy directs, returning to the Santa Barbara stage after 17 years as artistic director of Milwaukee Repertory Theater and teaching at Northwestern and the University of Wisconsin.
A skillful cast led by Screen Actors Guild actors featured Henry Woronicz as Willy and Gigi Bermingham as his enabling wife, Linda, who accepts her role as the person Willy constantly interrupts with reprimands for interrupting.
Trevor Peterson is Biff, the firstborn on whom all Willy’s hopes rest, and Alex Nee is younger son Hap, who, being nearly invisible to his parents, turns his energy to the come-up, at work and with women.
Biff’s work as a ranch- and farm-hand out west, though dismissed by his family as failure to measure up, mirror Willy’s own youthful love of the outdoors and plans to strike out for prospects in Alaska with his successful brother Ben.
Nature images and references come to the surface throughout the narrative and repeatedly in the scenic design.
Se Hyun Oh’s simple set features a movable surrounding wall that rises above the stage to display projected images of flora, seasons, spring, hope.
Three musicians-cum-actors provide a minimalist soundscape on cello, flute, saxophone, clarinet and bass clarinet from risers on either side of the stage. They also rotate in and out of the plot in smaller roles.
Having suffered through a man forsaking his own and his children’s dreams (not to mention showing no signs of recognizing that his wife might have thoughts or dreams of her own), I wanted to think Death of a Salesman was no longer relevant, that we’ve evolved as a society and become more introspective in the 70 years since it premiered.
But have we? In an era where social media likes and online reviews drive ever-expanding consumption and can create idols or end careers, Willy Loman’s fixation on being “well-liked” above all feels as pertinent now as it may have all that time ago.
The play and this production stay with you, and provide an opportunity to review, and maybe renew, our convictions about what’s important for each of us as individuals and for the collective us as well.
Death of a Salesman runs through Sunday. Click here to purchase tickets, or call 805.965.5400. Audience members can enjoy an illuminating pre-show talk with ETC dramaturg Brian McDonald on Wednesday or a post-performance meet-up and discussion with the company on Thursday.
— Noozhawk contributor and local arts critic Judith Smith-Meyer is a round-the-clock appreciator of the creative act. She can be reached at email@example.com. The opinions expressed are her own.