Arthur Miller subtitled Death of a Salesman “Certain private conversations in two acts and a requiem.” In the Ashkenaz Festival production now playing at the Studio Theatre of the Toronto Centre for the Arts the conversations are not so much private as internal. Willy Loman, the pathetic travelling salesman and grandiose dreamer is talking to himself as he tries to come to terms with his utter failure as a husband, a father and a salesman.
Death of a Salesman is rightly seen as a parable of the American Dream, the idea and ideal of the constitutional right of the pursuit of happiness interpreted as entrepreneurial success and wealth. If the play resonated with America of 1949, it is far more relevant today than ever.
Avi Hoffman directs the production and takes on the role of Willy Loman. From the start Willy appears like an empty shell. His illusions of success, his bravado, his boasting and his dreams for his children are all lies. As we listen to Hoffman’s superb delivery of Willy’s lines, we realize that Willy may know in the depths of his soul the truth about himself but he makes Herculean efforts to hide it from himself and mask it in his useless sons. Hoffan gives us the quintessential common man who wants to be uncommon without the wherewithal. A great performance.
Death of a Salesman has a number of flashbacks and imagined occurrences such as Willy’s meetings with his brother Ben. They are Willy’s dreams and nightmares but those scenes are not substantially different from the scenes that take place in the present. In all of them Willy is mostly in his own world, in his private conversation, in his dream of success or nightmare of failure.
Suzanne Toren, Avi Hoffman, Mikey Samra and Ben Rosenblatt
This production brings another angle to the play. I always assumed that the Lomans are the all-American family. There is no hint that they are not Americans from their ambitions to rise above their station to Biff playing football and Willy wanting to eat only American cheese.
In this production Willy is clearly Jewish and he not only wants to succeed and be a somebody but he wants to belong. He wants to be American. He does not want to eat whipped cheese because it is not American and good Americans eat American cheese.
Suzanne Toren plays Linda, the most sympathetic character in the play who sees and knows a great deal but fights off reality out of necessity. She sees what her husband is but pretends to joins in his illusions and delusions in order to save him from himself. A marvelous performance by Toren who displays both the depth of feeling and strength of Linda.
Daniel Kahn gives us a Biff who is a shallow wreck of a human being, a copy of his father in his search for easy success and wealth and a tragic man because he at last realizes what he is. A powerful portrait by Kahn. Mikey Samra plays the equally shallow Hap who also shares all the family traits but, unlike Willy and Biff, learns nothing.
The smaller roles are played equally capably by Sam Stein as the real mensch Charley, Ben Rosenblatt as his decent son Bernard, and Adam B. Shapiro as the odious Howard, the face of capitalism and the American success story.
The set consists of a table and four chairs and almost nothing else. There are some video projections of the Loman house, a road and a car but it would be difficult to imagine a more barebones production. It is as if the play has been stripped of all paraphernalia and laid bare in all its searing drama. It is a stunning production.
One more point. The play is done in Yiddish and the title is Toyt Fun A Seylsman. If your Yiddish is meagre, there are English surtitles and you will hear the guttural and lyrical sounds of that language. I found the surtitles and the Spartan production concentrated my attention on the acting and the text. The result was a powerful production and a great night at the theatre.
Death of a Salesman (Toyt Fun A Seylsman) by Arthur Miller opened on August 31 and will play until September 10, 2016 in the Studio Theatre, Toronto Centre for the Arts 5040 Yonge St. Toronto, Ontario. www.ashkenaz.ca