Arena Stage: Death of a Salesman and A View from the Bridge

Arthur Miller redefined tragedy for the modern era. Once tragedies took place at court and in the lives of kings and heros, but Miller placed his tragedy in an urban setting, amongst the lives of the common man. Kingdoms and crowns were no longer part of the story, instead the struggle for an ordinary, but dignified existence. Miller wrote his tragedies surrounding a leading man who is, “ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing--his sense of personal dignity.”

Miller’s conception of tragedy is clearly and smartly portrayed in Arena Stage’s current repertory productions of Death of a Salesman and A View from the Bridge.

The primary figure of Death of a Salesman is Willy Loman, a worn out salesman, grasping to provide for his family, creating his own world when the real one is too disappointing.

Making up the rest of the Loman family is Willy’s wife Linda (Nancy Robinette), and their two sons, Biff (Jeremy S. Holm) and Happy (Tim Getman). All three actors are good. They understand their how their characters fit into the play, and have really succeeded in creating the sense of history and long-standing affection present in families.

But the true star of this production is Rick Foucheux. His Willy Loman is interesting and complex, intensely flawed and intensely human. Foucheux is always natural and present. His acting is very specific and uses a myriad of tactics in order to achieve his goals. He bullies, he pleads, he boosts, he charms, he kids, he demeans.

The direction (Timothy Bond) and production elements are clear and precise. When Willy retreats into his memories, his delusions, the stage becomes brighter – in lighting, in costumes, and in the acting. As reality and his continual failures encroach on Willy’s optimism, the tone of these elements is brought back down.

Willy Loman is an example of how the American Dream fails, but he is also an example of the stalwartness of the American spirit. All the characters in their own way have this dichotomy. Linda is constantly put down and marginalized by Willy, yet she has the strength and resolve to stand by and support him. Biff is a failure in his father’s mind; he never became a great sports hero or a great business man, and though in his 30s, has yet to settle down. But by the end of the play, Biff has broken through to his own dignity and his own nobility by coming to terms with the fact that his father’s dream is not his own. And though the focus of this play is strongly on the relationship of Willy and Biff, Happy has a notable part to play. He is in danger of repeating the same mistakes his father made. He has the same playboy attitude towards women and the same habit of recasting events in a happier light. At the end of the play he swears to make good on his father’s dream, to become a great salesman. Is this a hopeful ending, the future generation building upon and growing better than the past, or is it the final tragedy, the delusions of the father being past down to the son?

In A View from the Bridge, Eddie, a Brooklyn longshoreman, and his wife Beatrice have raised their orphan niece Catherine. Now the age of 17, Catherine’s growing independence forces Eddie to confront his more than paternal love for her. Two of Beatrice’s cousins, Marco and Rodolpho immigrate illegally and come to stay with them. Eddie’s feelings and overprotectiveness reach a boiling point when Rodolpho and Catherine fall in love and plan to get married.

A View from the Bridge is not as well-written as Death of a Salesman, it is a much lesser known and performed work, still here, directed by Daniel Aukin, its production is slightly better.

The strength of this production stems from the uniformly excellent performances given by the three actors as the heart of the conflict. Delaney Williams (Eddie), Virginia Kull (Catherine), and David Agranov (Rodolpho) make this play so powerful by refusing to be simple in their conceptions and portrayals of their characters.

Williams creates an Eddie who is extremely sympathetic. His Eddie is a large, red-faced man, slow with words, and full of conflicting emotions he is able neither to express nor understand. Williams doesn’t play the creep, his Eddie genuinely cares for Catherine, and couldn’t control what his feelings became as she grew. He comes so close to overcoming and letting Catherine go, but is unable.

There is wonderful work being done by Williams and Kull in the relationship they have created between Eddie and Catherine. We see the genuine care and affection they have for each other, but we also see the torture on Eddie’s face whenever she touches him. Kull really captures the sense of a girl on the brink of womanhood. Growing up, but still caught in the adolescence in which she went running into Eddie’s arms every time he came home.

Eddie tries to convince Catherine that Rodolpho only wants her for his citizenship and that he is “not right” (i.e. gay). He belabors Eddie’s many effeminate qualities – he dances and sings, he makes dresses. The way Williams says “dresses” – with just a slight lilt, just a slight slowing, just a slight addition of sibilance – the effect is subtle but leaves no doubt as to how Eddie feels about Rodolpho.

Agranov is a charming and extremely likable Rodolpho. Like the other two, Agranov creates a complex and winning character. He is lithe and dapper, and yet completely masculine.

The main weakness in this production stems from the script itself. The inclusion of the character of Alfieri, a lawyer in whom Eddie confides, is completely inexplicable to me. It is as if Miller didn’t trust his own script. Alfieri’s scenes only serve to belabor the situations and emotions which have already been made clear by Miller’s otherwise well-written script.

The best thing about repertory theatre, no matter the combination of plays, is discovering the range of the performers. It is utterly delightful to see an actor portray completely different characters and wholly commit to different vocal and physical choices. There are two such actors that deserve praise for their work in the Arthur Miller repertory.

The first is Kull. Her youthful portrayal of Catherine includes a boisterous physicality and the adolescent habit of sighing out words. “EEEd-die.” “Yee-ah.” Contrast that with her cameo role as Miss Forsythe in Salesman. Here, playing a call girl, she is a poised and smooth bombshell.

The second is Louis Cancelmi. In Bridge he plays Marco, Rodolpho’s brother. He is intense and tightly-wound. His Marco is the dark to Rodolpho’s light, both in appearance and in behavior. In Salesman, Cancelmi plays Bernard, Biff’s nerdy schoolmate. In this role Rodolpho’s rumbling voice has given way to a treble tone. As Bernard, Cancelmi actually manages to appear gangly!

4 stars
Through May 18th

Arthur Miller “Tragedy and the Common Man.”


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