In the decades since the 1949 debut of Arthur Miller's Pulitzer Prize–winning Death of a Salesman, the play's workingman themes have remained relevant. And its popularity has never waned — last year, its fourth Broadway revival won two Tony Awards. KC may not have the lights of Broadway, but it has the Kansas City Repertory Theatre, which is now staging a well-executed, satisfying production of this classic.
The Rep show, directed by Eric Rosen, remains true to the play's original time period, but it is also timeless in its concerns. Miller calls to mind our collective recent past: massive layoffs, taxpayer bailouts of Wall Street, the 47 percent. He does this, though, by examining just one household and its lessons. What makes a man and how we take the measure of a man's life make up much of the story, which is rich in symbolism. Those layers are pulled back in the struggles and interplay of the characters, made real and accessible here by a talented cast.
Willy Loman is the original 47-percenter, and the American stage's No. 1 Everyman — "man" being the key half of that compound. This isn't a working woman's story. Wife Linda Loman (Merle Moores) is a long-suffering and loving spouse, and she serves to clarify Willy's story, as do all the characters in this play.
Gary Neal Johnson expertly animates Willy, keeping him in a sympathetic light while exposing the character's most damning faults and shortfalls. We feel for this salesman, now past his prime in a world that has changed around him. He's trying to keep up in a profession that has provided his identity and defined his self-worth. "When they start not smiling back," neighbor Charley (Mark Robbins) says of the job, "that's an earthquake."
In this day, Willy might have aspired to Wall Street, or wanted its rewards for his sons — money, respect, status, a legacy. But Willy has a dual nature, also embodied in his two boys: a pleasure in working with his hands — he believes that "a man who can't handle tools is not a man" — but the consuming aspiration to be more than "a carpenter."
Does Willy have the wrong dreams? Yes, as far as Willy's son Biff (Rusty Sneary) is concerned. He doesn't want any part of his father's path. But the other son, Happy (Kyle Hatley), is more like Willy than the family realizes. The assistant to an assistant buyer, he's trying to make it less on hard work than on big ideas and working the system. Or, as Willy says, through the all-important "spirit, personality."
Charley, a successful professional, is the opposite of Willy, and he has instilled a studious, nose-to-the-grindstone ethic in his son, Bernard (Chris Roady). This young man doesn't talk up an accomplishment or wax about his far-reaching hopes. As Charley says, "He doesn't have to — he's gonna do it."
These relationships and interactions all take place in and around the skeleton frame of a two-level house, where changes in time — from night to day, present to past, reality to memory, back again — transform seamlessly with Victor En Yu Tan's lighting and scenic designer Meghan Raham's shifting screens and backdrops.
"You didn't crack up again, did you?" Willy's impatient boss, Howard (Brian Paulette), asks in a pivotal scene that is both startling and familiar in its business-as-usual chill. He shows off a new gadget costing "only a hundred and a half" (in 1949 dollars), not unaware that Willy has trouble just making the mortgage payment.
In a brief appearance, Michael R. Pauley brings a palpable sensitivity to the role of Stanley, waiter to Willy during the salesman's puzzling evening at a restaurant with his sons. Other small but noteworthy performances include Cheryl Weaver as the (other) Woman and Kip Niven as Willy's older, idolized brother, Ben.
Death of a Salesman runs nearly three hours, a span that goes unnoticed as the play reveals a man and his family through their memories, desires and failures. And at the play's sad conclusion, when Willy's worth is clear, time stops for a moment. We pause. And we remember Willy Loman.