Ringwald shines with Miller’s ‘Death Of A Salesman’
FERNDALE, Mich.–Everything that audiences love about the theatre—drama, conflict, relationships, character choices, motivations, symbolism, emotion—are woven brilliantly into one of Arthur Miller’s most well-known plays, the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning Death of a Salesman. Salesman is a classic for many reasons, including those aforementioned, but also because of the way it deeply impacts audiences. Anyone who sees this show and isn’t then motivated to reflect on his own choices and their effect on others is not simply paying attention.
The Ringwald Theatre in Ferndale, under the direction of Joe Bailey, has assembled a cast that delivers the high emotional impact that Miller’s complex message in Salesman deserves. The story focuses on the Loman family—husband and wife Willy (Joel Mitchell) and Linda (Kelly Komlen), and their grown sons Biff (Donny Riedel) and Hap (Jeff McMahon). We are treated to flashbacks in which Willy, a traveling salesman, revels in being a father to his young sons, who look up to their dad. Willy takes great pride in Biff’s athletic talents, and has big dreams for his future. Willy talks a good game about his own career success as a salesman, but it is clear that he lives vicariously through the success he perceives in Biff.
Life has different ideas, though, and Biff has been steered off course, wandering the country looking for a meaningful existence, while Hap is content to maintain a career of mediocrity, as long as it funds his woman-chasing lifestyle. Willy, meanwhile, is suffering from increasing regret and depression, a result of his failing career. He vacillates between disgust and anger at his sons’ (especially Biff’s) lack of success and refusing to let go of his past great expectations and overlooking Biff’s self-sabotaging behavior. Linda is the rock of the family, not only juggling the family finances but also moderating Willy’s ever-increasing depression and delusional moments, and acting as arbitrator of the tense relationship between Willy and his sons.
Biff and Hap are aware that something is wrong with their father, but are unwilling to face it head on. Instead, Biff butts heads with Willy at every opportunity, and Hap simply attempts to distract Willy from his woes. They are jolted into reality by Linda, who tearfully explains her growing suspicions that Willy is suicidal. It is in this first emotional climax that we see the crack in Linda’s outward appearance of strength.
Willy’s delusional behavior worsens as he is fired from his job, yet still he refuses to take a job offer from his long-time friend and neighbor Charley (Randy M. Stewart), who has been “lending” Willy money each month to help him get by. He becomes consumed with guilt after a conversation with Charley’s son Bernard (Danté Jones), also a childhood friend of Biff and Hap, who has greatly eclipsed them in career success. Bernard reveals that Biff’s behavior changed radically after visiting Willy on a sales trip. Willy can’t reconcile the repercussions of his own choices for Biff with his continued delusions of Biff’s potential. A final family confrontation ends with Biff begging Willy to let go of his unrealistic expectations, and Willy mistakenly believing that Biff will finally be successful in business.
The dynamics and symbolism of the relationships between the characters is so complex that there is hardly space here to adequately analyze them. Willy continually describes himself as “well-liked,” even though he seems to have only one friend, and he regularly mistreats even his own wife and children. His envy of others’ success reflects his own failures and guilt, which creates an irreconcilable dichotomy with his delusions of success,.
Mitchell’s performance as Willy deftly shows Willy’s ever-increasing slide away from reality into delusion. You can see the conflict on his face as Willy fights the battle in his mind and in his soul. Komlen as Linda is absolutely brilliant as she shows the horrific emotional consequences of attempting, unsuccessfully, to be the glue that holds together a family that is fracturing before her eyes. Her portrayal not only evokes genuine tears for Linda on stage, but for many in the audience as well.
Riedel and McMahon offer characters in Biff and Hap whose personalities seem to be two sides of the same coin—one who self-sabotages his own potential success, and one whose satisfaction with mediocrity belies any such potential.
The technical choices for this production are simple but well executed. The use of every inch of theatre space—literally wall-to-wall and in the aisles—creates the backdrops for every scene and eliminates the need for scene transitions that could take audience members out of the emotional moment. Sound and lighting are subtle, well-designed and effective.
Bailey has created a production that honors the powerful impact that Death of a Salesman is intended to evoke. It forces us to confront themes of regret, guilt, family relationships and mental illness, and delivers an emotional punch that is impossible to deny, even for those who have seen this play before.
Death of a Salesman runs at The Ringwald through March 11, 2019.