The set design for "Death of a Salesman" presents the Loman house stripped down to the studs, a rather haunting metaphor for the life of the central character in Arthur Miller's classic American play, which opened Thursday night at the Underground.
Willy Loman is mentally unstuck in time, taking refuge in his past and in his imagination as his present closes in on him. Director Robert Lee has those scenes bathed in yellow light, an appropriate choice because in retrospect, Willy sees each road not taken as inevitably being paved with gold. But Miller goes beyond Willy's gilded memories and lays bare unbearable truths.
John Pokryzwinski brings his singular high-speed intensity to the role of Willy Loman, which means even the most fevered and inane pronouncements ring with a conviction that is momentarily compelling, but ultimately unwarranted. As voiced by Pokryzwinski, we are made acutely aware of Willy’s many flaws and foibles.
As oldest son Biff, Rob Larson pitches his voice a notch higher than usual, speeding up when he plays the younger version. This gives Biff a sense of drive, albeit undirected in the present while misdirected in the past, eloquently reaffirming the fatal connection between father and son.
Biff does not know what he wants, but Kent Dean as smarmy younger brother Happy thinks he has exactly what he wants. Dean convinces me that the best Biff ever would have been is no more than what Happy is now, adding another dimension to the tragedy.
Ellie Martin's Linda is always stifled by her husband in the presence of their sons. Fiercely supportive, she is not blind to his faults, and frightened by his illusions. It is she who ends the play with the final irony that adds gross insult to grave injury.
It is interesting to reconsider Willy Loman now, when I am virtually the same age, a time in life when regrets are omnipresent and beginning to fester. Is Willy’s problem his age? Or the realities of the post-War age in which he lives? Or rather is his plight an ageless problem that transcends time?
Miller’s play is eerily prescient. A tape recorder is seen as an amazing device that allows time-shifting a radio broadcast, thereby hinting at the future obsession with virtually everything being available "on demand."
"They know me," Willy boasts, but like most of his pronouncements, it is mostly bluster. He bemoans the lack of human connection, unaware his audience inhabits a world where we spend more time looking at our smartphones than into another person’s eyes.
For me, the best evidence for the quality of theater in this community is when, in show after show, you see in the program name after name of cast members who have had the leads in others shows and are now playing supporting roles.
The supporting cast in this powerful play features Chris Nollet as next door neighbor Charley, Greg Anderson as his son Bernard, Jack Starr as Willy’s older brother Ben, Jennie Ross as The Woman, Jody Kujawa as Willy’s boss Howard, and Kitara Peterson as Miss Forsythe.
Attention must be paid.
If you go:
What: "Death of a Salesman" by Arthur Miller
When: 7:30 Thursday-Saturday through March 3
Where: The Underground, 506 W. Michigan St.
Tickets: $20 adults, $18 students at duluthplayhouse.org