The first thing that strikes you upon walking into Artists Repertory Theatre to watch "Death of a Salesman" is the bold set. It is almost a runway between two halves of the audience – not so much theater-in-the-round as theater-in-the-strip. This offered some great staging possibilities, and some serious functional errors.
For most of the play the advantages were used relentlessly, giving the viewer the idea that the interweaving scenes in Arthur Miller’s masterwork play were falling in and out of our vision the same way that they tumbled through Willy Loman’s memory.
It was a great stage to watch a play on, so long as the action was not spread thinly upon it. Occasionally characters would hold sustained pauses on either side of the long runway, leaving the audience to glance back and forth like it was a tennis match to see who would do something next. But this problem was incidental; the real problem with the staging was watching entirely half of the audience facing you, and all of them were yawning.
See, by the end of the play, Willy Loman sleeps with the fishes. In the middle of the play, I was sleeping with the audience. This is a great play, but fill a house with a yawning audience at your peril. You know there is a pacing problem with the first act when you come back from intermission and a gentleman behind you says, "I didn’t snore too loud, did I?"
Any theatrical philanthropists who were brave enough to stay for the second act were treated to a much better rendition of the play. The scenes were tighter, the action was more compelling, and the audience was more awake. This was due to notable supporting actors; Ted Schulz commanded attention with his unassuming Charley, bringing a liveliness and reflection to the stage that was absent when he was. Damon Kupper, as Willy’s boss Howard, single-handedly kept one of the best scenes in the play afloat. His timing and focus were marvelous, especially when contrasted with Allen Nause’s Willy Loman.
As ART’s Artistic Director, Nause has brought to the stage a Willy who is incredibly angry. He is not the villain or tragic hero. He is merely an angry man – not an angry little man, which would have brought the audience more to him, but merely angry. He was enraged almost anytime an emotion was called for, which flattened this complex character significantly.
Luckily, there are exceptions in the script itself. Willy goes into optimistic moods and blissful reminiscence, and with these aspects of Willy, Nause really nailed them. When Willy spoke with his mythical brother Ben, or his son Biff on the cusp of manhood, Nause provided a rich character with many levels of nuance. But his response to every other emotion Willy had – fear, anxiety, irritation, and denial – were all delivered with level-10 rage. After a couple hours of this, Nause was left with nowhere to take his character, and the play floated to the end on the performances of the supporting cast.
Willy Loman is not an angry, abusive man who shoves his sons around; he is a weak man, putting on a big personality to hide his small, insecure person. An audience needs to see some of the inner diminutive in Willy, not to simply divine it because we know the play before we walk in the theater.
The only truly confusing part of the play came with the Other Woman, played by Linda Williams Janke, who also played Linda Loman. This could have worked – Willy having an affair with a woman who looks just like his wife is a great choice – but not exactly like his wife. A different hairstyle, a wig, something to differentiate would have been helpful. The more time the audience spends figuring out who is who, the less time there is to draw them into the drama.
But, then again, something this play suffered from was having too much time. A grueling three hours, watching this play takes an entire evening of dedication, knowledge of the play before you walk in the theater, and a blankey to get through the nap in the first act.