A dirge for the American dream

Death comes to life at the Denver Center

Mike Hartman and Lauren Klein in Death of a Salesman
Photo by Jennifer M. Koskinen

If Willy Loman were an ice cream flavor, he’d be American Raspberry. If he were a car, he’d be a Ford Edsel. If he were a song, he’d be Sinatra’s “Here’s to the Losers.” Willy is one of Americana’s saddest sacks, and the fact that his 1940s-era story resonates so deafeningly even today says as much about the current state of the American dream as it does about the enduring nature of Arthur Miller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play.

Though it is considered the height of modern classics, Death of a Salesman remains unknown to many audiences. For the uninitiated, this is a dark, dreary, downer of a story. It oozes existentialism, loss and despair. An afternoon or evening spent in the company of Willy and his family will not put a smile on your face or a spring in your step. It will, however, make you take stock of your life and think hard about your past and your future.

At 63 years old, traveling salesman Willy Loman (Mike Hartman) has been working the New England territory for the same company for more than three decades. He’s on the road more than he’s home, and getting behind the wheel has become an almost impossible task. His loving wife, Linda (Lauren Klein), knows that it’s time for Willy to take a job at the main office in New York and leave the highways and byways behind.

But it’s just not that simple. (Spoiler alert: I will be discussing some key plot points, so if you don’t know the story already you may want to skip the next few paragraphs.) Willy’s two sons, Biff (John Patrick Hayden) and Happy (M. Scott McLean), into whom Willy poured all of his hopes for a life better than his, are disappointments. Happy, who has followed in dear ol’ dad’s footsteps by becoming a businessman, is a loutish philanderer barely getting by as an assistant to an assistant. Biff, who was the family’s golden boy through high school, is still searching for himself at 34 and is, basically, an unhappy itinerant laborer.

As for Willy, he struggles with reality to such a degree that one could easily conclude that he suffers from some form of dementia. One minute, he sees himself as the best, most successful salesman of all time; the next minute he’s sobbing as he borrows money to pay off creditors. He lives in a fugue state in which memories of missed opportunities haunt him incessantly, and he’s been courting the notion of suicide for some time.

Volumes have and will be written about the meaning of Death of a Salesman. Is it a commentary on the illusion of the American dream? Is it a dissection of the shared neuroses of the modern American family? Is it a portrait of one man’s descent into madness? Is it a treatise on the relative value of self-reliance versus the need for community? For my part, I see it as a bit of all of the above. It is a slice of life, unapologetic drama focused on the pitched battle between objective and subjective reality that, ultimately, points out the meaninglessness of life in no uncertain terms.

As usual, the Denver Center Theatre Company soars with this production. The beautifully minimalist set design by Lisa M. Orzolek makes excellent use of the Space Theatre’s theater-in-the-round design. The direction by Anthony Powell is sure-handed but of a light touch. The acting is solid all around, with DCTC stalwart Hartman making the most of his iconic role, Klein delivering the best overall performance and, in a minor role, Michael Santo elevating every one of his handful of scenes.

Death of a Salesman is the polar opposite of some happy, clappy dinner theater sing-along. But for anyone yearning for a challenging piece of theater or who simply has never experienced Miller’s masterpiece before, put the DCTC’s production at the top of your to-do list.

Death of a Salesman plays at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts through Oct. 20. Tickets are $47-$57. For tickets or information, call 303-893-4100 or visit www.denvercenter.org.

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