Death of a Salesman starts its run at Santa Fe Playhouse
The famous first sentence of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina — “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” — is instructive up to a point. Each family has its own story. But when understood through a modern psychoanalytic lens, unhappiness within one family can usually be ascribed to issues shared by many families. The shame of abuse, addiction, spousal philandering, or untreated mental illness can turn a family inside out. The effort it takes to retain a semblance of normalcy or keep peace in a household can look like love or even happiness, depending on who’s looking. How outsiders interpret the truth within a family is probably linked to how they keep secrets in their own homes. In Arthur Miller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Death
of a Salesman, opening Friday, July 17, at Santa Fe Playhouse — the theater’s annual collaboration with Ironweed Productions — Willy Loman could be viewed as a loving, supportive father who’s reached his wit’s end due to bad luck at work and incipient dementia. The iconic American traveling salesman, played by Campbell Martin, has been driving erratically, talking to himself, and getting lost in reverie. He is quick to anger and frequently contradicts himself, though Willy has always been outspoken and demanding. His wife, Linda (Elizabeth Wiseman), might be genuinely selfless and devoted to his happiness, lovingly anticipating his moods and needs. Then again, this is how anyone who’s ever lived with someone like Willy learns to keep things calm, happily or otherwise.
“My first impression of her was that she was really soft, because she’s so protective of Willy,” Wiseman said. “Then when I got into it, I realized she’s really tough and strong. But I had to find that. I don’t come from a very demonstrative family.”
“When I first started highlighting my lines in the script, I realized Willy never shuts up,” Martin said. “How he’s gotten though life is that his perspective on his surroundings is very different from reality. His perspective is amazing. He’s a dreamer — he’s been sold on the American dream.”
Death of a Salesman, which had its first performance in 1949, is still a timely play because the myth of the American dream remains a relevant theme, said Scott Harrison, Ironweed’s artistic director and director of this production. “You can always feel like you’re never enough, that you’ll never have enough. This play hits you in the gut. It’s about people who don’t have a Hallmark kind of hope, but a gritty, resilient hope to make things better.”
“It would be easy to fall into a trap [as an actor] in the way they butt heads or raise their voices, but beneath all of that is care and concern,” said Peter Chapman, who plays the elder son, Biff, a former high school football hero. “One of the things that Scott has underscored is that they all love each other very much.”
Biff has recently returned from a stint out West, working the land — an occupation his parents do not respect. His brother, Happy ( Jonathan Harrell), works in sales and seduces women as a pastime. Neither brother likes his life or can envision his future. The only thing they know how to do well is to continually reassure Willy that he will have important, wealthy, well-liked sons. It’s the way Willy measures his own success. The play weaves