Maybe it’s because this production was directed by a woman (Mary B. Robinson) – or maybe because it’s just so inescapably “in the air” – but what clings most to the Public’s Death of a Salesman is the overwhelming stench of toxic masculinity. To be sure, Arthur Miller’s play is pretty much the same one you read in high school, the one that would ask you to see Willy and Biff Loman as victims of the social and economic stresses of mid-20th-century American capitalism. But feminist consciousness and our current political moment make it nearly impossible to ignore the extent to which the presumption of white male privilege that was sociological “background” for Miller’s original audience is precisely what creates dysfunction at every level of his character’s lives.
I’m pretty confident I was not alone in finding that the play plucked this sensitive nerve. Certainly my sentiment was shared by the group of around ten young (yes, young! at the Public!) women sitting in the row in front of me who gasped audibly when Hap Loman compared the girls he dates to bowling pins: “I just keep knockin’ them over and it doesn’t mean anything.” And because both Goethe and my good friend Chris Rawson tell me to do so, I’m going assume that excavating the toxic effects of “bro culture” was a deliberate choice, one that then helps explain not only the decision to make Willy Loman a character with whom it’s nearly impossible to sympathize, but also Zach Grenier’s interpretation of him as a man in something of an inarticulate, drunken fog, so poisoned by his own imbibement of noxious ideas about masculinity that he’s fallen victim to some kind of brain-addling dementia.
In point of fact, director Robinson doesn’t give us much encouragement to have compassion for any of the men in the play. Hap (Maxwell Eddy) and Biff (Alex Mickiewicz) – two handsome and well-educated white boys – are victims of nothing but their own expectations to entitlement, and it’s hard to ratchet up a lot of pity for either of them as they blithely appropriate what doesn’t belong to them. Hap is a “philandering bum” who sleeps with his coworkers’ girlfriends and wives; Biff steals sporting goods and other merchandise from his employers. These guys had, and then squandered, all the advantages denied to women and minorities of their era, and we’re supposed to nod sympathetically as they whinge about excess parental pressure? On top of that, the success to which the Loman men aspire is all too clearly tied up, both in their minds and in the social world of the play, with a dismissive and objectifying attitude towards women, women who giggle and flirt their way to free stockings and cocktails or who are, like Linda Loman (Kathleen McNenny), silenced and cowed into adoring submission. Indeed, the signs of an abused wife are written all over McNenny’s Linda, particularly in her ardent support of a man who continually lies to her and runs roughshod over her emotionally, and I spent most of the evening fervently hoping that Linda would find some way to escape her abusive marriage other than waiting for Willy to off himself.
The six decades that have transpired since Miller wrote this play open up some other dissonances, as well. For example, the play clearly positions Charley (Randy Kovitz) and his son Bernard’s work ethic as the correct antidote to Willy’s shallow, “it’s all about being liked,” definition of success. Bernard (Shaun Cameron Hall) exemplifies the meritocratic dream: he’s the nerdy and unpopular boy who studies hard, gets good grades, and achieves respect, status, and a rewarding salary as a result. But the nearly unbridgeable expansion of the gap between rich and poor in this country in the last thirty-odd years has surely taught us that Willy was right all along: our system is by no means a meritocracy, and how far you make it up the socioeconomic ladder depends as much on what rung you start on, and who you meet along the way, as on the talent and effort you put into the climb. Viewed in retrospect, the play thus somewhat ironically evokes nostalgia for a time when the Willys of the world could be seen as tragically misguided; instead, he just comes across as a foolish loser.
That impression is underscored by Grenier’s performance in the role. As he staggers slump-shouldered around the stage, roaring and slurring many of his lines unintelligibly, we lose all sight of what might have once made Willy Loman lovable not just to his family but also to the buyers he must, at some point, have charmed. He’s nothing so much as a pathetic sad-sack whose failure to live up to the macho ideal embodied by his brother Ben (Tuck Milligan) – who walked into the jungle at 17 and walked out at 21 as a rich man – has left him spiteful and seething in self-loathing.
And where does that leave poor Linda Loman, at play’s end? Precisely where rampant white male privilege leaves most women, I’d surmise: drained, exhausted, and diminished, looking back on a life she wasted propping up the source of her erasure from the scene as she quietly recedes into the background once again.