The tragedy of Willy Loman is one familiar to many of us in Las Vegas after the Great Recession, and Cockroach Theatre’s staging makes Arthur Miller’s classic as pertinent as the latest unemployment figures.
At 60, Willy is tired, but he can’t come off the road as a traveling salesman, can’t retire, can’t find another job. Returning home early from a failed business trip, Willy is deluded by his own bravado, but his failure becomes evident in wife Linda’s accounting of household expenses.
The play unfolds through a series of what Miller called “private conversations” and “mobile concurrences,” or the past and present being presented simultaneously.
Willy’s son Biff was a high school football hero, and Loman still dreams of his son’s success as a businessman, even though Biff dropped out of high school after failing math in his senior year. Now 34, Biff lives at home, trying to fulfill his father’s dreams for him between times spent as a farm roustabout out West. His younger brother, Happy, apparently has succeeded in business as an “assistant to an assistant buyer” and a womanizer.
A crisis is precipitated when Willy is fired and Biff confronts his father with a past moral failure that shattered Biff’s image of his father and causes him to reject his father’s dreams. Thinking he can still salvage his dreams for Biff, Willy stages a car accident so Biff can collect the life insurance money.
A recurring motif is the conflict between the male characters’ desire to be free in nature and the demands of business and marriage.
Ernie Curcio is much younger and more physically vigorous than the broken 60-year-old Willy Loman he portrays, but in one of the play’s “mobile concurrences” we see him physically transform himself from the younger Willy to a broken old man. The suit Willy wears seems a little too stylish for the character, but Curcio could make himself look worn out in Tom Ford. His portrayal of this icon of American tragedy makes us see the man, Willy Loman —“He’s a human being and a terrible thing is happening to him. Attention must be paid.” His performance is heartbreaking.
Joe Basso and Aaron Oetting are so convincing as the brothers, Biff and Happy, that there almost seems to be a physical resemblance between the two. The failed hope of the firstborn Biff and the overlooked “success” of Happy can be read in all of their interactions. There was audible weeping in the audience during Biff’s climatic confrontation with Willy when he tries to make his father see him for who he really is. Oetting’s characterization of Happy is similarly stirring.
Valerie Carpenter Bernstein as Linda holds her own on a testosterone-soaked stage, although her characterization lacks the inner mettle that one senses must underlie the docile Linda’s ability to stand by Willy in his self-delusion, even in preference to her own sons. Still, her delivery of the play’s gut-wrenching final lines leaves the audience stunned.
There are no bit parts among the supporting players; even the most minor contributes something essential. Particularly noteworthy are David Sankuer as Charley, Erik Amblad as Howie and Kerry Carnohan as Uncle Ben, who imbues his character with a mythical, almost godlike quality as Willy’s older brother.
Director Troy Heard stages the play’s difficult “mobile concurrences” with seamless perfection. In the scene in which Willy is fired, the shift in power between the once up-and-coming salesman and the boss’ son is subtly conveyed by a reversal of position from standing to sitting. Kyle Boatwright’s original incidental music lends to the play’s transitions without intruding. Scott Fadale’s minimalist set works so well that it hardly seems minimal.
What: “Death of a Salesman”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday, Saturday and May 16, 17 and 18; 2 p.m. Sunday and May 19
Where: Art Square Theatre, 1025 S. First St.
Tickets: $15, $18 (www.cockroachtheatre.com)