Lloyd’s Bravura “Death” Performance at the Hop

Christopher Lloyd visited the Upper Valley to perform in a Hopkins Center production of “Death of a Salesman.”
By Georgia Travers ‘13

Going into Saturday night’s performance of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” at the Hopkins Center, I confess I was not terribly excited.  Firstly, a friend had told me that the show ran for three and a half hours (which meant that it would overlap with the Heorot Highlighter Party, where I would have spent the evening otherwise, obviously).  But more importantly, having read the play my sophomore year of high school, I remembered it as a depressing chronicle of the American Dream’s fraudulence and an indictment of the corresponding post-World War II era petit-bourgeois, capitalist lifestyle.

While Miller definitely aimed to expose such inconsistencies, I am not convinced that he succeeded in doing so.  Furthermore, I do not believe that that question is the most compelling legacy of the play.  Contrary to my expectations, I walked out of Moore Theatre on Saturday stunned by the richness, complexity, and depth of Miller’s oeuvre. “Death of a Salesman” undoubtedly belongs at the pinnacle of the American dramatic canon, perhaps not as the champion of post-modern self-awareness, but rather as a breathtakingly resonant insight into the fragility of the human condition.

And the Vermont-based Weston Playhouse Theatre Company’s execution of the play definitely did justice to Miller’s masterpiece.  Christopher Lloyd (of Clue and Back to the Future fame) starred as the traveling salesman Willy Loman, the play’s tragic hero.  Willy’s character is paradoxically both proud and infinitely insecure, obsessed with the acquisition of wealth and prestige. His worldview relies on a stunted, perverted conception of American Dream that defines success as “being well-liked,” spirited (proud), and rich. 

Yet Willy is also tender, loving his family dearly and genuinely trying his best to raise his sons.  This destructive collision between his ideals and the reality of his life creates a protagonist who is tragically flawed, but also strikingly human.  Lloyd does a spectacular job as Willy by emphasizing his vulnerability and portraying his gradual disintegration both poignantly and delicately.  Lloyd’s excellence and professionalism are also evident in his ability to capture a vast spectrum of emotion as he delivers some of Willy’s most famous lines, such as the haunting cry, “You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away – a man is not a piece of fruit!”

Yet while Lloyd’s performance was excellent, the true stand-out member of the cast was Amy Van Nostrand, who played Linda Loman, Willy’s wife.  Linda is undoubtedly the most complex and realistic character in the drama, and thus a sophisticated challenge even for an accomplished actress.  Linda supports Willy, tolerates his developing psychosis, and sticks up for him to their sons.  She learns to be docile not out of fear, but because she wants so badly to help Willy, a man who is trapped underwater, drowning in the confines of his own cruel reality.  She is the closest thing to nobility in the drama, and thus its only potential redemption.

Van Nostrand’s authenticity made the performance truly exceptional, holding it together with the same desperate and infinite elegance with which Linda’s character holds together the story itself.  Van Nostrand did complete justice to the central, tragic complexity of Linda’s character, and her performance kept the audience riveted for all three and a half hours of the show.

The Loman brothers, played by Markus Potter (Biff) and Nathan Darrow (Happy) portrayed their characters well, but did not go beyond the text and bring the two boys to life in the same way that Lloyd and Van Nostrand did.  To some extent, this was a function of the characters they played, both of whom are less dynamic and more caricatured than either Willy or Linda.  Biff, the older brother is somewhat of a cliché.  He constantly professes a need to “find himself,” to be outside under the sun, working with his hands.  He represents a glorified, free-spirited pioneer, craving genuine fulfillment rather than money or prestige.  He accuses Willy towards the play’s end of imbuing him with a false dream of success, and now that he has seen the light, vows to go “out West” and revel in the freedom of his own authenticity.  Biff’s troubled relationship with his father is definitely the most interesting aspect of his character, and Potter did a first-rate job capturing the emotional intensity of this relationship in his exchanges with Lloyd.  Nevertheless, Biff’s character remained somewhat unsatisfying.

Happy, Willy’s younger son, is interesting, but ultimately the flattest character in the Loman family.  He represents that natural result of Willy’s limited worldview: a sterile, cruel man who refuses to give up his father’s dreams even once they have literally destroyed him.  He ends the play vowing to vindicate and honor Willy by “[succeeding] where he failed,” a heavy-handed closing reminder by Miller of the irony on which the entire drama is predicated.  Darrow gave a striking performance, powerfully conveying the loneliness of Hap’s childhood and the resulting emptiness of his adult life.  The audience’s heart goes out to the youthful Hap when he begs Willy for some kind of affirmation, repeatedly asking, “I’m losin’ weight Pop, have you noticed?” in an endearing Brooklyn accent.  Nevertheless, by the end of the show Hap is a hard character to like, even though Darrow portrayed him skillfully.

Another complex dimension of the play is its constant transition between past and present, resulting from the periodic intrusion of Willy’s hallucinations into the reality of the stage.  The Weston Playhouse achieved this effect with clarity and simplicity with the basic set including three different rooms in the Loman house, and using light shifts to indicate changes in time or location.

On one level, “Death of a Salesman” represents the quintessential self-gratifying dramatic trope of American liberals.  Yet is also constitutes a tremendously resonant and emotionally moving drama, whose literary and dramatic value transcends its role as a clumsy indictment of a traditional American way of life. 

Christopher Lloyd, Amy Van Nostrand, and the entire Weston Playhouse Theatre Company ensemble performed a true masterpiece of the American stage with the timeless grace and honesty it deserves, and I am delighted that I was able to experience it.