Harris Yulin, familiar as a ‘That Guy’ from Looking for Richard, Buffy, and 24, gets a chance to shine in a lead role in this revival of Arthur Miller’s coruscating 1949 play.
Salesman was a devastating response to people embracing the post-war boom by forgetting that the last boom, driven by cheap credit and property speculation, had produced the intractable Great Depression. The American Dream requires both such collective amnesia and a self-delusion that everyone can succeed in a system whose rules only allow some succeed. Such self-defeating dreaming is articulately skewered by Miller in the self-deceptions of the titular salesman Willie Loman. Talking of dreams – “Who let Ellen Page loose in here?” asked fellow Inception fan Stephen Errity (stephenerrity.wordpress.com) as we first noticed Michael Pavelka’s set, which tilts towards the audience from a height of a few feet, even as the facade of a hideous apartment building with a tree growing through it topples towards the actors. This set communicates Willie’s loosening grip on reality. His sons complain that he is talking to himself at night, but really he is talking to them, his reality is slipping from the present to events from years gone by. He interacts with teenaged versions of his sons in scenes which start purely in his mind and then explode into physical life with the help of quick costume and hair-style changes. Director David Esbjornson also skilfully employs the mobile props on the stage to slide between locations and temporalities.
Willie raised his sons to believe they were leaders of men and he clings to delusions of his own importance despite being forced back on the road instead of receiving the office job he was promised for his trailblazing work for the firm as a younger man. Willie is a willing victim because he has been bewitched by the notion that everyone can end up like his brother Ben who boasts – “When I was 17 I walked into the jungle, and when I was 21 I walked out. And by God I was rich.” His implosion due to money worries, in particular a meltdown with his old boss’s feckless son, is incredibly raw as Yulin does justice to Miller’s script, which wraps an emotional knock-out punch around his politico-economic message.
Willie’s disintegration is given its pathos by the effect it has on his family. Garrett Lombard as Willie’s eldest son Biff (an aimless self-loathing drifter), Rory Nolan as the younger Happy (mildly successful in business but insanely successful in womanising), and Deirdre Donnelly as long-suffering wife Linda, make you care intensely for their flawed characters and their various efforts to save their everyman patriarch, particularly a heart-rending restaurant scene where Biff attempts to lay bare the lies he and Willie have told themselves over the years. Lombard’s accent became pure mule during some tense scenes but that problem should disappear as the run continues, while in minor support the Gate ‘repertory’ enjoy themselves with Stephen Brennan’s luminous white-suited Ben out-Fassbendering Barry McGovern’s droll waiter and John Kavanagh’s Charley.
Miller was sometimes criticised for letting his moral concerns trump naturalistic dialogue but this production is riveting theatre.
Death of a Salesman runs at the Gate Theatre until September 25th.