Left to right: Noor Taher, Sam Chapin and Mike Backman
Drama begins when a character wants something and can't have it. Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, currently staged by the Parish Players, is about a man who wants the wrong thing, and wants it so badly he destroys himself with delusions. Lured by the postwar image of an American dream of financial success and popularity, Willy Loman and both his sons measure themselves by society's values rather than their own. Their failures are the essence of tragedy.
The Parish Players, now in their 50th year of community theater productions in Thetford, faithfully bring Miller's script to life with a set that presents two floors of Willy's house and all the places, past and present, crowding his anxious mind.
Death of a Salesman premiered on Broadway in 1949 and won the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for best play. Any list of the 20th century's most important plays includes it, and seeing it today proves it's lost none of its power with the passage of time. Miller never specifies what Willy sells, and, even if some of the postwar preoccupations are unfamiliar, the human needs in the play are unchanged.
The play begins with Willy shuffling into his small Brooklyn house, weighed down with two suitcases. He's back early after breaking off a business trip. His wife, Linda, comforts him as he complains about his life on the road, disappointing sales results and pending bills.
Upstairs, his two grown sons, now in their thirties, are back in their old room. Biff has come home after failed efforts at ranching out west, and Happy, who has a low-level job and a taste for picking up women, joins his brother to reminisce. They're both concerned with their father's tendency to leap from mood to mood and to lose himself, muttering, in the past.
Biff and Willy will spend the next day making a last, bold effort to set their lives on a new course. They feed each other false hopes and bitter resentment until one of them tries, in vain, to tell the truth about what their lives really can amount to.
Miller puts the audience inside Willy's head, using flashbacks that overlap or dovetail with scenes set in real time. Willy's point of view and the contradictions in his own memories reveal his struggle. Always he is preoccupied with two problems: making a success of himself and seeing his sons succeed.
By producing Miller's intense psychological character study, the Parish Players endeavor to enlighten and move audiences as much as entertain. And the 12 actors in this production appear committed to dramatic work that stretches their abilities.
Though performance skills vary, the production as a whole is skillfully directed by Ray Chapin to deliver Miller's theme of a man lost in societal expectations. Chapin makes the transitions in time and place fluid enough to evoke Willy's experience without distancing us from the story.
Though the play steadfastly focuses attention on the main character, its structure relies on three legs: The roles of Willy, Biff and Happy must be equally strong to reveal Willy's doomed aspirations. In this production, Willy was fully realized while Biff and Happy were played with courage but not with all the clarity and power the roles can have.
Oscillating from euphoria to pitch-black gloom, Willy is a prisoner of turbulent, opposing feelings. He lurches from vicious to loving, pride to defeat, fear to bravado. Mike Backman gives him a plainspoken manner, with his moments of warmth more a matter of contentment than the ebullience of a swaggering salesman.
By establishing a deceptively low-key baseline for the character, Backman can give vent to the emotions simmering below the surface with surprising power. The sudden, nearly unprovoked rages are riveting, while his delight in vain hopes can melt a heart in pity. And when Willy slides lower and lower in despair, Backman is careful to take him there without grandstanding. We see, instead, a simple wearing away.
As Linda, Kay Morton pulls herself inward to emphasize a long-suffering wife's retreat as she quietly mends Willy's jacket or silently weathers his rebukes. Morton is effective in conveying a change in age when appearing in Willy's flashbacks. Though her appearance is little changed, she gives Linda's younger self a bright-eyed yearning while her present-day face falls, eyes cast down.
Sam Chapin is sweetly devilish when showing Happy's life as a ladies' man. But he never quite hits his character's desperate need for his parents' approval. He doesn't wait for the acknowledgment that never comes and, because he doesn't expect it, neither do we.
Noor Taher exhibits the emotional courage necessary for the role of Biff, though he lacks Biff's athletic grace and strength. It's Taher's commitment to the role and willingness to reveal Biff's doubts and sorrows that leave a lasting impression.
As Charley — the next-door neighbor and a successful businessman — Erik Gaetz does a remarkable job giving his minor character the ability to reflect and respond. Interacting with other actors, he builds the scene as an exchange, not a pair of speeches tossed against each other. Gaetz is especially moving as he shows Charley searching for the words to eulogize Willy.
Lighting design by Alex Cherington impressively establishes the range of moods, places and times. Costumer Beth McGee offers both hit and miss solutions to the challenge of outfitting a big cast with postwar fashions.
Miller wrote a central role of great complexity in Death of a Salesman and stuffed the action into two momentous days. The play embeds a deep tragedy inside the mundane efforts to make loan payments on a refrigerator, keep a job, persuade a boss or pass a math test. The Parish Players deliver the emotional force of Miller's elegy to a man whose happiness is within reach yet never grasped.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Sales Force"
Alex Brown writes fiction (Finding Losses, 2014) and nonfiction (In Print: Text and Type, 1989) and earns a living as a consultant to magazine publishers. She studied filmmaking at NYU and has directed a dozen plays in central Vermont.