It’s easy to be overawed by the reputation of Arthur Miller’s 1949 Pulitzer Prize play Death of a Salesman – and the characters Willy and Linda Loman.
Much has been written about the roles of a hapless travelling salesman, who refuses to face the realities of his life and his failures, and the wife who stands by him stubbornly, even as his family unravels and his feet of clay become painfully evident.
They – and their two sons, Biff and Happy, are a Norman Rockwell family portrait gone wrong, tainted by frailty and disillusion.
The play itself can be – and often is – seen as a metaphor for a post-Second World War, mid-century malaise – a signpost of the American Dream gone askew, a sense that the American Determinism of the early 1900s has derailed.
But Fred Partridge and Jane Mantle, who play Willy and Linda in the White Rock Players’ Club upcoming revival directed by Ryan Mooney (Oct. 7-24 at Coast Capital Playhouse, 1532 Johnston Rd.) say the key to their performances is delineating Willy and Linda as real people – rather than legendary characters – and letting the audience draw whatever conclusions they will.
“People can get afraid of this,” Partridge said.
“When Miller wrote it, he wasn’t writing a ‘masterpiece’. He was writing a play that he thought would mean something and have some resonance with people. It was first and foremost meant to be an evening of entertainment in the theatre – and people, not knowing what it was about, liked it.”
A man naturally gifted at working with his hands, Willy has worked long hours for many years trying to be what he’s not – an avuncular, well-liked salesman who will someday find the magical key to success. Instead, he is being passed over and passed by – an anachronism in the modern world – and rapidly losing his grip on reality.
Biff, the eldest son, is a disappointment to him; he has not found his way to success as Willy’s understands it, while Happy, like his mother, works too hard at trying to keep the family together and paper over the cracks.
Partridge, longtime president of the White Rock Players’ club, said he feels his job is to hang on to the naturalism suggested by Miller’s dialogue, which is, just as in real life, peppered with interruptions, half-expressed thoughts and apparent non-sequiturs.
“Willy is such a tragic figure that it’s hard to keep him from being just that, or taking it too far,” Partridge said. “It’s all about keeping the character real, keeping him grounded and allowing people to see him as a person and not a symbol. The symbolism is in the writing.”
Paradoxically, the more heart-rending parts of the script – as Willy slips into decline – are Partridge said, the easiest parts for him to play.
“It’s because Fred is playing it so naturally – you see what is happening in the reactions,” Mantle said, adding that it’s through this that the work of actors Tom Gage as Biff and Edwin Perez as Happy becomes most moving.
“Tom is doing a wonderful job and Edwin is lovely – the play is so well-cast,” she said, agreeing with Partridge that they have all developed a strong sense of family through the rehearsal process.
“They see Willy making bad decision after bad decision – it’s almost as if you want to shout out ‘no, don’t do it,'” he said.
“Every time I play a scene, I feel like ‘maybe this time it’ll work out.’ Willy sort of thinks he operates in a vacuum. But the story is what other people think of Willy.”
Mantle said that Linda, too – in her need to be the embodiment of the loyal wife and mother – has unconsciously contributed to the trap she finds herself in.
“Society has boxed her in,” she said. “Before the war Willy was doing OK. Her role as the homemaker – that’s what she was.”
But by the time the play opens, Linda is at the point where her role has become her reason for being, Mantle said.
“She’s in denial a lot. We had a exercise at the beginning of the rehearsal period. We had to come up with a word to describe the character we were playing and I said ‘helpful’.
“I believe Linda thinks she is doing everything for everyone around her. But in the end she is doing it all for herself.”
Also appearing in the show are Ken Cross as Willy’s brother Ben, Brian Wilson as the Lomans’ neighbour Charley, Sean Malczewski as his son Bernard, Josh Fuller as Willy’s new boss Harold and Rosemary Shuster as Harold’s secretary Jenny.
Rounding out the cast are Heather-Jane Robertson as The Woman, Kate Naylor as Miss Forsythe and Krystle Hadlow as Letta.
Evening performances are at 8 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday, with 2:30 p.m. Sunday matinees on Oct. 11 and 18.
A special ‘Talk Back Thursday’ feature, Oct. 15, will allow audience members to discuss the show with the cast and the director immediately after the performance.
Tickets ($22, $19 students, seniors and Coast Capital Savings members) can be purchased through www.whiterockplayers.ca, or from the theatre box office, 604-536-7535.