In an increasingly digital world of likes, shares, and clicks, it might be hard to see how a mid-century play about a traveling salesman could possibly be relevant. Blackfriars Theatre is currently staging Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman," and the final production of its 2016-17 season shows why this poignant tale remains pertinent for audiences of all ages.
By 1949, New York City-based salesman Willy Loman has been on the road for more than 30 years. He's tired; he's hallucinatory. And mysteriously, he keeps getting into minor car crashes. His wife, Linda, observes his fatigue and exhorts his sons, Biff (a 34-year-old former high school football star who flunked math and never attended college) and Happy (a playboy, low-ranking business professional), to help their ailing father by giving him something to look forward to. Ultimately, Willy's dreams are rooted in his own affirmation and success and that of Biff, his favorite son. When neither of those things happens as Willy nears retirement, he begins to explore other ways he might be remembered.
Playwright Arthur Miller penned several of the greatest works in the classic American theater canon, including "Death of a Salesman" and "The Crucible." His plays have a notably long shelf life because of their transcendent societal commentary and humanistic themes. High school students still read Miller's work to understand the history of the United States, and critics still debate weightier interpretations of his scripts.
That being said, "Death of a Salesman" is a heady, monstrous play for any theater to mount, and the choice to end Blackfriars' season with this production was a calculated risk. The casting has to be precise and thoughtful, the tension between characters perfectly executed. Otherwise, the play's most poignant moments fall flat.
Fortunately, Brian Coughlin (who directed last season's "Proof") is at the helm as director, and both his vision for and casting of the show is impressive. Leading the cast is David Munnell (as Willy Loman), a local theater professor who has portrayed Robert in "Proof" and Beverly in "August: Osage County." A role like Willy Loman -- played on Broadway by acting greats like Philip Seymour Hoffman -- requires an absolute devotion to the quiet mania of the character, and Munnell delivers at every turn. He warms up slowly, but by the end of the show it's unclear when Munnell ends and Willy begins.
This could be said for several members of the cast; the character work is remarkable throughout. As burned out hometown hero Biff, Danny Hoskins (Blackfriars's artistic director) confirms his acting chops as an earnest, likeable bum who conceals an angry streak just below the surface. As the younger playboy son Happy, David Andreatta (a reporter at the Democrat and Chronicle) is fluid and charismatic, his dialogue believable and genuine. Patricia Lewis Browne, who often works with Blackfriars (she directed "The Boys Next Door" this season), gives a bittersweet portrayal of Willy's wiser-than-she-lets-on wife, Linda.
While the Loman family could be considered the core cast for the show, "Death of a Salesman" doesn't work without strong supporting roles as well. As Charley, neighbor to the Lomans (and Willy's "only friend"), Peter J. Doyle again proves he's a gift to Rochester stages. Each time he steps into the spotlight, Doyle depicts a new, fully developed character -- quite a feat for someone who acts so frequently in the local scene.
Newcomer D. Scott Adams (last seen in "The Flick" at JCC CenterStage) is an actor to watch, and he makes the most of his bit part as restaurant owner Stanley, providing much-needed light moments in an otherwise heavy production; while Jonathan Porter, who plays Charley's son, Bernard, brings a thoughtful transformation to his nerdy role.
In addition to directing, Coughlin also designed the sound for the show, an important asset in a production where sound informs both time period and outside action. Janice Ferger's crisp, understated costume designs and John Engel's intentionally average props add to the realism.
"Death of a Salesman" is a play about the American Dream, sure, but it's also a play about being well liked -- a sentiment Willy expresses many times throughout the two and a half hour run. As long as human nature craves affirmation and stature, as long as people compare themselves to others, it is a show that will never be irrelevant.