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Miller's Tale

You read the play in high school. You sat through a version trotted out by a community theater group. Perhaps you saw Dustin Hoffman portray Willy Loman in the 1984 revival on Broadway, or watched Hoffman in the made-for-television edition. If you've been going to the theater long enough, you might even have caught Lee J. Cobb in the 1949 Broadway premiere. In any case, with no shortage of Death of a Salesman revivals out there, another rehash of Arthur Miller's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama may not top your must-see list.

But it would be a mistake to miss the luminous rendition of this American classic now on-stage at Coconut Grove Playhouse. Directed by Gerald Freedman, artistic director of Cleveland's Great Lakes Theater Festival, the production features the incomparable Hal Holbrook as the self-deluded Loman, buoyed by a superb supporting cast. Freedman's unflinching direction reinforces the power of Miller's masterpiece through insightful attention to the script's revelations and its astutely drawn characters. And in our era of corporate downsizing, job insecurity, and dwindling governmental support, Willy Loman's struggle with failure proves particularly relevant. You will be moved watching Holbrook's performance, no matter how many times you've already seen the show.

Although Miller's most recent work, including 1991's The Ride Down Mount Morgan and 1994's Broken Glass, has found a more receptive audience in England than it has in the U.S., his earlier dramas established him as one of the most important voices in American theater. Never afraid to tackle social issues in plays such as 1947's All My Sons, 1953's The Crucible, and 1955's -- View from the Bridge, Miller explored his signature themes: the individual's search to find his place in society, the conflict between private integrity and public demands, and the struggle within families, particularly between fathers and sons. Death of a Salesman grapples with each of these. It also offers us Miller's most memorably tragic figure.

Willy Loman has spent a lifetime on the road, hawking hosiery from New York to New England in order to pay off the mortgage and sustain his family: his long-suffering but ever-supportive wife Linda (Elizabeth Franz), his oldest son Biff (Matt Mulhern), and his younger son Happy (John Speredakos). He's nourished himself and his boys on an ethic of popularity: "Be liked and you will never want," he assures them, feeding them stories of how charisma and humor open doors for him in the business world. Ultimately, however, his aphorisms yield nothing. The hopes for glory Loman pinned on the much-admired Biff, slated to attend college on a football scholarship, dissolve when he fails math and can't graduate from high school. Loman finds it harder and harder to maintain the optimism necessary to make sufficient sales. He escapes into fantasy, talking the talk about his fortunes to his wife, his sons, and his neighbors until he believes it all himself, even as his ability to earn a living unravels.

When the play opens, Loman has returned home to his middle-class Brooklyn neighborhood, having cut short a sales trip because of exhaustion; once possessed of boundless energy, the now-depleted 63-year-old can't keep his car from drifting onto the shoulder of the road. His sons are at home as well -- Biff on a visit from Texas, Happy taking a break from his nearby apartment. From their old bedroom they hear their father rambling out loud to himself, reciting conversations he remembers having with the boys in the past. Gathering together in the kitchen in the middle of the night, the family coaxes old hurts out of the shadows, then makes plans and utters promises for the future. By the end of act one, however, Miller has set the stage for Loman's poignant downfall, something that's inevitable given the moral choices Willy has made throughout his life.

Hal Holbrook has enjoyed a distinguished five-decades-long career as an actor, during which he has received a Tony Award for his solo show Mark Twain Tonight!, picked up five Emmy awards, and met the challenge of mammoth roles such as Shakespeare's King Lear and Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. To his list of dramatic accomplishments he can add this desolate portrait of Willy Loman. Holbrook imbues the character with a heart-wrenching dignity, baring the soul of this Everyman who has been disinherited by the American drive for material and social success. Loman may not be capable of self-reflection, but Holbrook does not hold that against him; instead he reveals the salesman to be a product of cultural expectations and of the limitations imposed by those expectations. Twice Loman asks other characters in the play to disclose their secret methods for making it big; as posed by Holbrook, the questions escape from Loman like tormented pleas, expressing self-doubt and disappointment that cut devastatingly close to the bone.

Broadway, film, and television actress Elizabeth Franz matches the power of Holbrook's performance with a moving portrayal of the tender and stoic Linda, the wife who sees through her husband's posturing yet never stops loving, respecting, or bolstering him. Matt Mulhern effectively juggles Biff's need to find himself with his compulsion to prove his worth to his father; by the end of the play the actor has brought the character to a place of self-acceptance. Equally credible as the second son, John Speredakos portrays the seemingly carefree Happy as a younger, more blatantly hedonistic version of the man his father might have been had he lived in a different generation. Supporting cast members, including several South Florida actors who will travel with this production on its upcoming national tour, fill out the evening with flawless performances, set against Chris Barreca's simple yet imposing scenic design. Juxtaposing a looming, dreamlike backdrop of apartment buildings and tree silhouettes against a realistic kitchen and bedroom set, Barreca contrasts the social forces beyond Loman's control with the mediocrity of his and Linda's lives. The set provides a crowning element to a beautifully conceived and executed production.

At a glance, no two plays in the canon of twentieth-century drama could be further apart than Miller's distinctly American and naturalistic Salesman and Irish playwright Samuel Beckett's 1957 absurdist tour de force Endgame, currently given a witty, intelligent, and tightly directed staging by Akropolis Acting Company at El Carrusel Theatre in Coral Gables. Where Miller employs all the conventions of traditional theater to tell his tale of family life, Beckett dispenses with theatrical protocol in his comically ridiculous domestic drama; you won't find exposition, a linear story line, plot development, psychological explanations for characters' motivations, or a recognizable setting in Endgame.

On the other hand, seeing these masterworks back to back reveals their similarities. Although each author crafts his play using vastly different methods, both works exhibit great compassion for human anguish; each explores the consequences of self-delusion; and, like Salesman, Endgame chronicles a day in the life of its characters, although the action in Beckett's opus does not take place anywhere near a middle-class Brooklyn neighborhood.

The title Endgame comes from the final part of a chess match, when just the king and a few other pieces are left on the board and only a certain number of restricted moves can still be played. Not surprisingly, the movements and the options available to the characters in this play mirror the controlled environment of a chessboard. Hamm, a blind cripple confined to a wheelchair, shares a room with Clov, his son-servant who is physically unable to sit down. Elsewhere in the room, Hamm's parents, Nell and Nagg, live in garbage cans. Outside lies a despoiled landscape, with all evidence of line, color, and form wiped out. Inside, the petty tyrant Hamm orders Clov about, while the toady son exerts his own passive-aggressive control by withholding Hamm's painkillers. Meanwhile, Nell and Nagg attempt to comfort one another by scratching each other's backs, except they can never reach one another. Within this claustrophobic space, all four characters repeat their limited repertoire of gestures with a ritualized obsession that suggests the futility of daily life; the longings they plaintively express -- doomed never to be satisfied, given their prisonlike situations -- illustrate the folly of human desire. Such an existential quandary would seem unbearably tragic were it not so wickedly funny.

Director Marta Garcia understands the absurdist humor inherent in Beckett, and her actors adhere to the text and to the playwright's extremely explicit stage directions. The result is a polished, sophisticated, and accessible rendering of one of the most challenging theater works ever written.

Looking like a cross between a slovenly lord of the manor and an aging Shakespearean actor, Paul E. Tei delivers a thoroughly engaging performance as the verbose Hamm; the actor manages to be dynamic even though he's trapped in a wheelchair. As Clov, Juan C. Sanchez plays the sullen martyr to perfection. And Richard Janaro (Nagg) and Ellen Davis (Nell) project a sublime foolishness from their garbage cans.

In Endgame, Beckett envisions humanity as whining, infantile, needy, delusional, and trapped in a prison of its own making. In Salesman, Miller creates a more ennobled portrait of the human condition. And when faithfully produced -- as done by both Coconut Grove Playhouse and Akropolis Acting Company -- each drama shimmers with the truth of who we are.

Beckett envisions humanity as whining, infantile, needy, delusional, and trapped in a prison of its own making.


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