“Work a lifetime to pay off a house. You finally own it, and there's nobody to live in it.”
Arthur Miller staged “Death of a Salesman” in 1949, but its message still offers insight into modern day. After that initial run, the play gained a reputation as one of the 20th centuries greatest plays. It’s this production the actors and producers at Theatre Knoxville took up. How does this modern theatre classic hold up?
The play follows Willy Lowman, an elderly salesman struggling with his age and insecurities. He can’t sell as well as he used to, his boss has taken away his salary and his two disappointing sons have recently come back into town. On top of this, he’s starting to hallucinate about his and his family’s past. Over the course of the play, Lowman and his family deal with their perceptions on success and happiness.
The viewing experience is just watching a tragically mediocre family for three hours. However, there’s a lot more than a synopsis would suggest.
Failure, mental illness, self-delusion, parenting, selfishness — the play explores multiple interesting themes while giving each their own time to shine. Miller told a story about failure and depression. He also told the story of a family ruined by bad parenting and constant self-aggrandizing.
But in the end, Miller really told the story of a man who worked his whole life to impress others and can’t accept it’s led to an empty, lonely existence.
It simultaneously commends the spirit of the American Dream while criticizing what it makes men do to attain it. But meaningful themes does not a good script make.
Miller’s not the most subtle playwright when it comes to dialogue. Don’t worry about figuring out a character’s fatal flaw because they’ll happily tell you. It’s almost humorously unsubtle. It’s harmless for the most part, but it can rob climactic moments of their gravity.
In fact, Miller’s whole writing ethos may turn some folks away. In Miller’s work, every character interaction, stage movement and line of dialogue exists to hammer in the play’s theme(s) — and not just in the sense that all works of art exist to make a point. It’s not a criticism against Salesman. However, consider this if you prefer your live theatre with more naturalistic dialogue or prefer plot over story.
On the production end, Theatre Knoxville made great use of stage space. It’s a small stage filled with just enough for to feel like a new locale by not enough to feel crowded.
Performances were fantastic all around, but Joe Jaynes brought Willy Lowman’s character to a new level. They way Jaynes mixes frustration, pride, confusion, sadness and anger creates a Willy that feels like both a victim and an instigator.
I enjoyed Theatre Knoxville’s “Death of a Salesman” despite my issues with Miller’s script. It’s earned its name as a modern theatre classic and I highly recommend it.